The Price of perfection
Margaret Price’s last interview / Yehuda Shapiro
This issue was to have marked Dame Margaret Price’s 70th birthday, which she would have celebrated on April 13. Sadly, she died of a heart attack early on January 28 at home on Ceibwr Bay in Wales, just a couple of weeks after giving Yehuda Shapiro what turned out to be her last interview. We are proud to publish this in tribute to her.
Whether perfection can ever exist in the many-layered world of opera remains a matter for debate, but my live experience of Margaret Price produced at least two ‘perfect’ moments: her launching of the wedding toast in the Act 2 finale of Così fan tutte at Covent Garden in 1985, and, two years later at the Royal Opera, her ‘Son io’ as Norma made her confession. Both exemplified her ability to launch and spin a full-toned phrase of exquisite tonal and temporal proportion. If the sheer beauty of her voice prompted serene adjectives such as ‘creamy’, ‘pure’ and ‘bell-like’ (the latter appropriate to its accuracy and ring), Price was a singer of poise rather than placidity. Her smooth but sensuous timbre was complemented by the alert sincerity of her musicianship and her capacity for binding eloquent words into a tensile line. She did not need to apply special effects to achieve power of expression.
Astonishingly, Price—an astute, down-to-earth inter-viewee who leavened her moments of nostalgia with humour (she had a twinkle in those soulful brown eyes)—claimed never to have taken a singing lesson. ‘It was simply the way I sang. I wasn’t self-taught—I just had the gift of being able to do it and could sing a legato line without thinking. These days, students ask me how to sing legato and I just can’t tell them: I don’t have the vocabulary. I did try a singing teacher once, but it wasn’t a success. What I did have was a very good coach throughout my career who never interfered with my vocal production. Maybe I would have had a better career had I known what I was doing—it’s hard to say.
‘At the start I wanted to be a mezzo. When I was 21, they told me I was a soprano and I just burst into tears—my dream was to be another Kathleen Ferrier. I had gone up to London from Wales aged 15 to study interpretation on a special personal scholarship with Charles Kennedy-Scott [an influential figure in choral singing]. We didn’t do opera, but Bach, Handel and Lieder. He didn’t want me to exert my voice or try to extend it, and after four years I sang “The Shepherd on the Rock” at Wigmore Hall, though I’d also been singing mezzo in the Bach B Minor Mass. Whatever I was capable of singing, I sang.’
When she left Trinity College of Music, Kennedy-Scott told her: ‘Don’t worry, my dear, you’ll find your own little niche in the world.’ She joined the Ambrosian Singers, conducted by John McCarthy, and rapidly acquired a professional’s practical skills and disciplines, also singing as a soloist with Geraint Jones’s Kirckman Concert Society and the likes of Janet Baker and John Shirley-Quirk. The baritone became Count Almaviva to her Cherubino after her successful audition for a new Figaro at Welsh National Opera in 1962; it was her first theatrical foray. ‘John and I were miserable as sin because our costumes didn’t fit properly and burst at the seams when we had to kneel down. And, as concert singers, we weren’t really accepted by the opera fraternity, but we got on and did our job. I still thought I was going to be a Lieder singer—that was my greatest love. Opera was way down the list of my ambitions.’
Even so, her father touted her to the Royal Opera on seeing an advertisement for auditions in the Western Mail. When she presented ‘Voi che sapete’ and ‘O don fatale’ (!) to the decision-makers at Covent Garden, the accompanist was James Lockhart, with whom Price developed a long personal and professional relationship. Without the blessing of Georg Solti, ‘who found that I lacked charm’, Price was contracted to understudy Teresa Berganza as Cherubino in John Copley’s new production of Figaro in spring 1963. On Whit Monday, destiny called: Berganza was ill and Price was on. ‘When the call came to my flat near Baker Street, I nearly passed out. My landlady had to bring me a brandy … I’d attended the production rehearsals, so I went off for my costume fitting, and Geraint Evans went through the relevant bits of his arias with me on stage. It was a brilliant cast, with Freni, Gobbi and Ligabue.’ The conductor, though, was the staff member Bryan Balkwill rather than Maestro Solti. Less than a week after her conspicuous success, Price replaced another ailing diva, this time a compatriot. ‘I took Shirley Bassey’s spot on Sunday Night at the London
Palladium. Jack Parnell was conducting. I’d never sung “Voi che sapete” in 2 before!’ If Solti was not (yet) a fan, Otto Klemperer took the young soprano under his wing. ‘He was like a grandfather to me. He’d invite Alma Mahler over to his apartment in Hyde Park and we’d sing through Mahler songs. When he conducted Fidelio [in 1969] at Covent Garden, Solti wanted another soprano for Marzelline, but Dr Klemperer just told him he could conduct himself in that case. In the end, I did it with Klemperer and enjoyed it enormously.’ She went on to record Barbarina and Fiordiligi with him, and her dazzling ‘Come scoglio’ points towards her future in heavier roles. ‘Fiordiligi is quite a dramatic lady. She puts her two feet on the floor and tells them absolutely what she feels, without any hesitation at all.’ The soprano was capable of some low-key dramatics herself. ‘Sometimes, when Klemperer was taking things very slowly, I’d have to say: “Dr Klemperer, I’m only a little thing and I can’t sing it that slowly.” Then we’d do it again and it was a super tempo—though maybe not for people today, when it’s all way too fast.’
While Mozart led the way in Price’s career in the late ’60s and early ’70s, her other roles included Tytania at Aldeburgh, Tatyana on BBC TV and Nannetta in San Francisco. ‘Wherever you went in the world, whether it was Don Giovanni, Figaro or Così, there was an ensemble of Mozart singers … Raimondi, Siepi, Berganza, Varady, Sciutti, Minton and Brits like Ryland Davies [the Belmonte of choice to her Constanze] and Anne Howells. I left it for a long time before singing Donna Anna, which was a size too big for me at the beginning of my career. It’s such a difficult role that it’s seen as the pinnacle of achievement for a Mozart soprano, though I sang the Countess with the same sort of success.’
Her debut in what became her signature role took place in Cologne in 1971 in Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s production of Don Giovanni, conducted by István Kertész and also featuring Roger Soyer and Lucia Popp. ‘I did all my Mozart roles with Ponnelle in Europe and the US. He talked me into Donna Anna, reassuring me that Cologne wasn’t a large theatre. It was a success and my career really took off.’ She went on to sing more than 50 times in the city—in Mozart and in her favourite Verdi role, Elisabeth in Don Carlos, also notably seen in 1978 at La Scala with Abbado and in 1989 with Levine at the Met, where she first appeared in 1976 during guest appearances by the Opéra de Paris. ‘Verdi is a natural progression from Mozart if you choose the roles correctly.’ After Nannetta, she moved on to Amelia in Simon Boccanegra and later also in Ballo (a role she considered dramatically thankless), Desdemona and Aida—an interpretation televised internationally in 1981 from San Francisco, where her Radames was Pavarotti. She even sang concert performances of a Verdi rarity, Giovanna d’Arco, in New York and London. While Price’s voce dal cielo further illuminated the saintly Joan, it was a surprise choice for the dark and dangerous Lady Macbeth—offered to her in concert form by none other than Abbado. ‘I would have given my back teeth to sing it. It’s a great role, and the music is beautiful, even if Verdi said he didn’t want a beautiful voice. But it wasn’t a role I was capable of singing, so I had to say no, though Abbado is a wonderful conductor and a wonderful person.’
Another maestro who ended up among Price’s fans in the ’70s was Solti, who, in Paris alone, conducted her in high-profile productions of Figaro, Don Giovanni and Otello. ‘He was the kind of conductor who wanted the best cast he could get together and, unfortunately for him, I was the best Donna Anna and Countess at that particular time! He began telling people that I was a musician’s singer and a conductor’s singer … and in the end a great rapport grew between us.’
Among the roles she recorded with Solti was Desdemona, but it was Carlos Kleiber who conducted the now-legendary Otello with Domingo at the Royal Opera House in 1980. He invited Price to record Isolde with him. ‘I told him he had to be out of his mind. “I want a Mozart voice, pure and innocent,” he replied, so I went back to James Lockhart and he simply laughed, but Kleiber persuaded James to teach me the role. I studied hard, did an enormous amount of background reading and listened to old recordings by more lyrical sopranos like Nanny Larsén-Todsen. Kleiber was very pleased with the way the sessions went, but he told me: “If I ever ask you to do Isolde on stage, say no to me. Even if I beg you to do it, don’t!”’
Kleiber did beg her to take on the less daunting Marschallin. ‘He wanted some of the humour I brought to Fiordiligi. But after I studied it, I told him there was nothing for me to sing in the role. “Congratulations,” he said. “There isn’t. You’re the first singer ever to tell me that.”’ Although Price made a speciality of Strauss’s songs—her Vier letzte Lieder, sadly never commercially recorded, were sublime—Ariadne was the only Strauss role she ever assumed, first in 1984 in Munich with Wolfgang Sawallisch. He was another of the select group of conductors, also among them Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, to receive Price’s trust and praise.
Over the 18 years that Price lived in Munich in the latter part of her career, she appeared regularly at the Bayerische Staatsoper, where she had made her debut in 1971 in Simon Boccanegra. Beyond her Mozart and Verdi roles, it was also a showcase for her Adriana Lecouvreur (her only staged performances) and Norma. ‘Members of the press and public were very concerned that I would ruin my “angel voice” singing a dramatic role like Norma, but again I sang it with the voice I had. After my Norma in Munich I spoke to Sawallisch and suggested putting on a few performances of Così. That proved to the world that I hadn’t lost my Mozart voice!’
Price retired in 1999 to a farmhouse overlooking the sea in Pembrokeshire, turning her attention to the breeding and showing of golden retrievers. ‘My puppies play absolute hell with me, but they give me huge pleasure. They are sometimes easier than conductors.’ Her nurturing instincts were also applied to a limited number of pupils, though she confessed to finding teaching ‘not an enviable job’ and preferred masterclasses. As a judge in the 2009 Wigmore Hall/Kohn Foundation International Song Competition, she was so impressed by the team of the baritone Gerard Collett and the pianist James Baillieu that she staged a recital for them in Cardigan: ‘They outdid themselves and the audience adored them.’
From her location ‘on the end of a rock in Wales’, Dame Margaret reflected on her career: ‘I’m quite content with what I’ve done, and I was lucky enough to divide my time between opera and the concert platform. I always sang what suited my voice best and was prepared to wait until I was physically and intellectually ready for a role. I think I sang everything I wanted to sing. There were other roles I might have liked to have done, but the right time just never came. I hate the idea of being classified as a lyric or a spinto, or whatever. I’ve had a decent career. I think I was a good soprano.’