Interview with June Anderson

A native of Boston, soprano June Anderson ranks among the most important singers in the international opera and concert world today: tones that keep their textures in the high notes, a vocal range that is rich and makes the singing of high and agile passages appear effortless, a tone that is constantly clear. She started to take singing lessons at the age of 11. When she was 17 years old, she became the youngest finalist in the Metropolitan Opera National Auditions. She then attended Yale University as a French major, graduating cum laude. It was after Yale that she really began to think seriously about becoming a singer and studied with Robert Leonard. She made her professional debut with the New York City Opera in 1978 as the Queen of the Night in Mozart’s Magic Flute. In 1982, she was invited to sing Semiramide at the Rome Opera. Since then, June Anderson’s career has taken her to virtually every major opera house in Europe and in the United States.  She was the first non-Italian ever to win the prestigious Bellini d’Oro prize. It is June Anderson who sings the aria of the Queen of the Night in the film Amadeus by Milos Forman.  June Anderson has just triumphed as Pat Nixon in a new production of John Adams’ Nixon in China at the Chatelet in Paris.
June Anderson, you have described yourself as a “stage animal”…
Wow, that was a long time ago… but what I meant by that was that I prefer the opera stage to the concert stage. I like getting in someone else’s clothes, in someone else’s hair, I don’t like to go out as June, I really don’t.
How did you approach your characterization of Pat Nixon?
Funnily enough, when Pat Nixon went to China she was the exact same age I am now.  She was lucky to live at a time when the press was less invasive, we don’t know a lot about her. In this “opera”, there isn’t really a “character” to latch onto. We see the down to earth, supportive wife, American tourist and a woman outraged when confronted with what she perceives as brutality. But a character?  Not in the way we find characters in operas. It’s not even available in history. Pat Nixon is Nixon’s shadow. She was in the limelight at a time when you could still be private. She went to college, became a teacher, but wasn’t a professional person in her own right, like Hilary Clinton or Michele Obama. She wasn’t a politician. Pat was a wife and a mother. Watching films of her, you see her smiling, looking attentive, but maybe she’s thinking of Trisha, or Julie, her girls, rather than actually listening to a speech, things like, you know: “Did I leave the light on?.”  The main work of any actress is listening. And so that is what I do I in this role…I just react to my surroundings. I portray  her as a little mal à l’aise, slightly uncomfortable. But is that a characterization? She is the only character who was not a political player and so actually comes to embody “humanity” in the piece. But there are really no three dimensional characters of flesh and blood presented. There are little sub-texts that Franco Pomponi and I have created on stage. Things like: “Oh dear, I’m going to have to leave you now, and be by myself. I have to go and stand with those women. Do I look alright?”. Of course, they have to be added in moments when we’re not counting! Here, if you let yourself go and try to feel something, you’re lost. A bizarre coloratura passage in Act 1 is extremely anti-vocal. At one point in the rehearsals I got lost and couldn’t get back in, I simply could not get back in…(laughs)
Is the role difficult to sing?
It doesn’t sound as difficult as it really is. In one of the prettiest, most melodic sections, the time signature changes every single measure. Learning the music, you have to memorize that this measure is in 3/2, the next in 3/4, then 4/4, back to 3/4, 4/4…5/4 and then back to 3/4, 4/4 and then three bars of 3/4… While I’m on stage and pretending to dance, I’m actually counting on my fingers the whole time! It’s even difficult for the orchestra and they don’t have to memorize it. I mean it’s not that I‘ve never done serious counting before… in Salome and Capriccio there are moments…but this is excessive. Every single part is very difficult for each vocal type in this first opera by John Adams. Pat Nixon is written in what we call the passaggio. I’ve never sung so many high Gs in any role in my entire career! You don’t sing that many Gs in bel canto. Bel canto composers knew to only go there once and a while. G is the note which starts the high notes, but it’s a tricky note because mi-fa-sol (E-F-G) is the place where the voice is changing registers and you have to be very, very careful. It’s like singing in the cracks. Most of her role is written there. The aria sits right there, even though it’s one of the most lyrical passages in the opera.
When Nixon in China was first created in 1987, you were already a major international star. What did you know of it back then?
Not a lot. I vaguely knew about it. It seemed a totally bizarre title for an opera and a totally bizarre subject for an opera, which I still think it is (laughs)… I’d been calling it CNN Opera or Docu Opera, thinking they have to find a category to put it in because it’s not really an opera. However, in these performances at the Châtelet, it’s being done more like an opera than ever before. This is the first time that it’s actually been cast with opera singers. Nixon in China has been produced with singers who don’t necessarily make the rounds in opera houses, or if they do, they are specialists in contemporary or Baroque or a kind of mix between musical comedy and opera. Adams always insisted that Nixon in China be amplified, that all the singers use mikes. This is the first time that singers are not being amplified, thanks to bigger voices than normal, and to a cooperative conductor and orchestra who agreed to play very soft. They happen to like singers. They’re a good bunch. They get their kicks out of playing for the ballet scenes. There are moments where they can play loud and others where they really had to bring it down a lot. I don’t know what I would have done if someone had asked me to do Nixon in China years ago. It arrived at the right time.
In 1989, you said you were a gypsy.  Do you still see yourself as a gypsy? 
I do actually. I don’t know whether I was born a gypsy or whether I became one because of my work. I would like to be a little less of a gypsy at this point. I’m racing back to my little house in Connecticut the day after tomorrow because it’s planting season.  I’ve become a gardener and I have only three and a half weeks now.
Are you a morning or a night person?
When I’m in the country, I like to get up very early, probably 6h30, sometimes 5. I might have a few little word games, scrabble games and things with my sister in Washington who also gets up early. Often she sends me something around 5h30, and I’m awake to get it. Normally, I’m Cinderella. Even on New Year’s Eve I often don’t make it to midnight!
What about technology in general?
At the end of 1998, I saw the writing on the wall: we were about to enter a new century and I didn’t even belong to the old one. So I gave my American Express card to a friend’s son and told him to go buy me what he thought I needed. He bought me my first computer. I had to fly to Paris though before anyone could tell me what to do. I knew how to turn it on and get into my email address, but I didn’t know how to turn it off! Now of course, I wish I’d had one from the beginning. I’d be a millionaire today with all the money I spent on phone calls. To be always in touch with the people important to you, is amazing.
And career-wise it probably changes things too?
It certainly makes me happier…
Do you still prefer rehearsing to performances? 
That’s never changed. I’m a backstage person. I’m not an extrovert, I’m a one-to-one person. Interviewers often say I’m not shy at all. I like talking face to face. But put me in a room of people and maybe I won’t say a word.
Do you ever dream about being in the wrong opera?
No. But something like that actually happened to me once. I didn’t have to dream it: I did it! I was singing a Traviata aria and somehow a cadenza from something else got in there (laughs). It was a little scary. Luckily it wasn’t with orchestra. That’s the thing…just letting your feelings come and go with the music is not what it’s all about. It’s fake…this is art, it’s not reality.
What would be one of your best memories?
Certainly one of the happiest moments was working with Leonard Bernstein. For Candide , he would have wanted Callas, which of course was impossible in 1989! I don’t know who proposed me to him, but after listening to some recordings he agreed to have me play Cunegonde.
Hans Werner Henze ‘s opera Les Bassarids ?
That was a challenge for me, that was the first really modern piece I had done since I was a kid…my first opera was a one-act Ernst Toch piece written in 1929 called The princess and the pea. Now talk about counting, that’s where I started, at the age of 14! The New Haven Symphony did it as part of their children’s concert series.
You began singing lessons at the age of eleven?
I started out as a dancer and then I had a tumour in my knee and had to stop dancing after the surgery. So my mother, who was a bit of a stage mother, said: well she can’t dance, I’m gonna have her sing!
What did you study at Yale?
I was a French lit major.
What century? 
Mostly 19th
You went to New York after Yale and took private singing lessons with Robert Leonard?
He was like a big brother…he was my mentor, he wasn’t just my voice teacher. At the age of 21, I had a very natural voice that was perfectly placed. I had no major problems when I went to him, but I had never learned to breathe and support the voice properly. He taught me. Which is why I’m still singing now and getting through all this music in the passaggio all the time! (laughs) Thank you Robert!  He introduced me to all the non-commercial Callas recordings and convinced me to start working on Norma. From my twenties, I worked on certain things just for technique, not that I was going to do them right then, but simply because they would serve my technique. Robert steered me in all the right directions.
Tell me about the choices you made in your career.
Well, I was always very prudent, very cautious, almost too cautious. I’m not what one would call a betting person, I’ll only bet on a sure thing and so that’s kind of the way I ran things. And I was very careful. I always thought I had a kind of glass throat and if I did anything wrong, it was going to break.
Do you collect things?
Yes, I’ve always been a collector. But over the years my collections and tastes have changed. But that said, I have no trouble throwing things away. When my mother died, most of my stuff was at her house. I was going to sell the house so I was getting rid of things. I threw out most of my archives…
Why was that?
Oh, what was I going to do with them? I didn’t have any room for them… and then I decided to keep the house, and I’d already thrown the stuff away. But even more important than my archives, I got rid of a lot of all my textiles!
Your textiles?
Textile collections, all kinds of fabrics. I didn’t give away the best things obviously, but I was a compulsive fabric buyer.

What about your paintings of famous sopranos of the past?
They’re stashed away in a cupboard.
You like to go forward, to turn the page?
Oh, I can throw things away, yes! Absolutely, when I sold my wonderful New York apartment, in 2005, everyone said: “How can you do that? That apartment is you, this is your apartment, you’ve lived there fifteen years and it’s so you”, and I said “Well, it’s time, it’s time.” So I just sold it. But unfortunately, I made the mistake of buying another one right away which I’ve regretted ever since!
What do you think of when you look at yourself in the mirror?
Where did you come from? And what have you done with the other one?
Is there a piece of music, something like your theme tune?
Many people have a hard time understanding it, but when I’m not preparing something, music is not part of my life at all. It used to be, but it’s a busman’s holiday now. If I’m not preparing something, I won’t sing at all. In my house in the country, I put the radio on sometimes in the morning, unless they start playing opera and then I’ll turn it off.
Any music you associate with precise circumstances?
I’m a very nervous flyer. When I started flying and feeling nervous, Ah non credea from Sonnambula  was a very lyrical, sustained aria that I knew very well. I’d never done meditation or yoga, but breathing for singing is very Zen. If things got bumpy, I would start singing to myself: Ah non credea…  It had this calming effect. Until one day I thought, what the hell are you singing, Ah non credea mirarti, “I never thought to see you die so quickly”, in a plane!
When you were a child, what would you have liked to be when you grew up?
A 1930s movie star… that’s still my dream.
A composer you identify with more than another?
Though Rossini was my fairy godfather, I feel that Bellini represents me more as an artist. Bellini at his best gets right down to the nitty-gritty. For someone known as a donnaiolo, he really knows his women. His women characters are extraordinary. His writing gets right down to the emotion. In bel canto, every little dot is important. You make that dot mean something that goes with the word and with the music. Norma is the culmination. That was my goal from the time I was in my twenties. Everything I was doing was aiming for Norma. Norma is perfection, because her words and music go together like a pair of hands, as if they’re made for each other. In Verdi there are moments when the rhythm of the language goes against what he’s actually written, but I think in Norma there are none of those moments. Bellini speaks intimately. I feel like he knows me. Bellini knows all women.
Is there some place you would like to go to on vacation?
I’ve only ever been to places where they have opera-houses, or orchestras. I only really travelled for work. A vacation was staying at home, wherever that was at the time. I love going to new places, but only if there’s someone to take me around. I’m not that good at being a tourist on my own…I think there’s nothing sadder. I just stay with my books and my reading…
What do you read?
I read a lot of things, almost all fiction, but as a constant traveller the easiest things to read are mystery novels. I read everything that comes out, on my Ipad, on my Kindle, on real life paper… I like to have one thing in paper, because you can’t use your Ipad or Kindle at take-offs and landings… what a geek!
You used to have a lot of little cats in your dressing room that you used to touch before going on stage…are you superstitious?

Um… yes. But I don’t have those cats anymore. It all began with Jamil, my cat when I was at Yale. When I went to Europe, a friend took him. He had to be combed, he was a Himalayan colour point…she combed his hair and weaved it into yarn until she had enough to crochet this little fake cat that was the mainstay of that collection. Everybody started giving me little cats. Finally, I was travelling around with this small bag full of cats…but Jamil was the one I would touch every time before I went on stage. When Jamil disappeared one day… it was in Barcelona and I never knew how…I stopped travelling round with the cats because Jamil was the centrepiece.
Do you give master-classes?
I do. And I really enjoy it. I never saw myself teaching. But some fifteen years ago, a thyroid disease nearly destroyed my voice. In fact, it did…and I had to learn how to sing again. Robert was dead by then. The thyroid is connected to 2 little muscles that are connected to the pharynx, and those muscles were atrophied. All of a sudden, I had to find new muscles to do the old job. It was very weird, I was losing the volume, the colour, and it became very wooden. I was losing what I thought was my best quality which was my phrasing, my ability to sculpt phrases. I couldn’t do that anymore…I mean that’s not something you just lose if you’re musical and able to phrase, so there was something that was wrong. It’s a very mundane disease as long as it doesn’t happen to an opera singer….but it happened to me. I came very close to giving everything up, but I’m someone who likes a challenge. Even though I’ve wanted more than once to stop singing and always had a strange relationship with my career.
You have always been devoted to your art?
Well, yes and no. I needed to be devoted to something… but  I would have given it up in a minute if I’d found Mr Right!
If you were to do it all again?
I’m absolutely sure that if I were starting again, I would probably never have a career because the world has changed so much. I thought it was enough to have talent and just do your job. It’s an industry now. When I got into the music business in the 70s, it was already changing, but now, they’re giving courses in self-promotion in universities and conservatories! I’m nice to people, but I don’t play up to them. It’s not in my character, my personality. I’m very down-to-earth. And I’m the worst self-promoter in history… now I am convinced that starting out today I wouldn’t have a career.
What’s your motto? 
For my entire career, people have been asking me to be different than I am, to be more aggressive, more ambitious. Things just kind of happened and if they didn’t happen, I never got upset about them. Some of my friends were more upset about things not happening than I was. “If you had only had the chutzpah, you could have done this, this and this,” they said. But, though it may sound trite, I can’t change, this is the way I am. This is my personality. I don’t sell myself, I don’t play games, I’m honest even to a bad point, almost pathologically honest. I try very hard not to say anything if I don’t like something, but it comes across as fake. People have often told me that when I’m thinking about something, there’s something about my face that comes across in the foot-lights. That’s how I live my life. I can go to sleep at night, because I haven’t hurt anyone deliberately. That I haven’t done it accidentally I can’t say because to be truthful, you do say things that maybe you shouldn’t have said, but I can sleep at night…my motto would be something like:  “To thine own self be true”.