“Sempre libera” : Conversations with Carol Vaness

Carol Vaness is presenting a Mainstage Masterclass at the CS Music Online Convention on Friday, May 28. View the entire schedule and register HERE.

photo by ©Daniele Venturelli

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hile quarantining in the summer of 2020, I enjoyed the nostalgic social media posts by opera legend Carol Theresa Vaness (my former teacher at Indiana University), which included a photo of a past production and a charming anecdote. I thought, “These posts are a treasure trove for both voice students and opera fans.” Her response to my subsequent idea to write a two-part article on her iconic career and current perspective on opera’s future and that of a full-time teacher was characteristically vivacious, warm, and generous.

Myriad interviews highlight her performances, professional process, and snippets of her personal life, but I was interested in not just the celebrated diva but also in the person who became the singer and diva.

What was it like discovering and then living in music and the public eye? How exactly did she “make it,” and what does that mean to her? Who were her greatest influences and mentors? What does she think about when reminiscing on her musical journey? And what would she like to be remembered for in her nearly quadrennial singing career?

Vaness grew up in Southern California where she could walk a few blocks to a store to buy candy and comic books. She had a penchant for the outfits and exciting stories of Flash Gordon, Iron Man, and Wonder Woman. One day, having a little extra money, she found a recording for only $1.25. “It was a very pretty cover that housed the Vaughan Williams Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis,” Vaness remembers.

“I had wanted to find a Beatles album—or perhaps the next best thing, the Monkees—but this seemed intriguing, so I brought this little treasure home. I had a cheap little record player and I proceeded to play that side of the record for about three hours to the dismay of my parents. I remember that I sat entranced like I was hypnotized . . . it was a deep, deep feeling that gave me near tears for the next hours and days and weeks and then years. I believe that recording [Sir John Barbirolli] ignited a first love to classical music.

“No,” she says, believe it or not, “it wasn’t Mozart.” Though, her subsequent renown in the music and drama of Mozartian opera likely began during masses at St. Joseph Elementary and Pomona Catholic High School, where she would be entranced by the music. “I had always loved going to church to listen to the music and the choir,” she says. “We had a proper Roman Catholic church where we did only major composers: Mozart, Beethoven, Handel, Purcell.

“It was such an amazing time for me during those services hearing the sounds [and] letting my mind go. My home was full of stress and all sorts of sadness, but when I listened to these masses and motets . . . I could be moved to tears. I was in another world totally—one I sought my entire career and found many, many, many times.” Her parents were “largely there, but absent” and, while they did sporadically attend performances through the years, it was perhaps obligingly supportive, even during high school.

“I was singing my first solo ever,” she says, “which was ‘I Feel Pretty’ [West Side Story], and my dad came. He was in the front row on the aisle, and I went to him and said, ‘What’d you think, Dad, what’d you think?’ And he said, ‘Oh, you were really great; I just couldn’t really hear you’ . . . that’s what he said. And, do you know, my whole life I never thought my voice was big enough to be heard.”

Upon attending Vaness’ propitious first performance in college of Tosca (later one of her signature roles), her mother “just sat there and said, ‘Oh, great,’ like it was a good college thing.” Due to this periodically restrained relationship, there were times early in her career that they didn’t speak, and it was many years before she “realized that coming home was not bad.” She describes her family as having been “quite poor” and that it was “rough” for her parents.

“The hardest thing” for them, she says, “was that they were not educated.” Her father served in the Marines but had always wanted to be a pharmacist. An “atomic veteran,” his unit worked in the cleanup of the Nagasaki bombing, and in 2000 he died of laryngeal cancer. “It was so ironic to me that, of all people, my father would have his voice taken away.”

Her path held many twists, stops, and starts. Her original plan after high school was to enter a convent, but she ultimately went to college for English and piano, which she had studied in childhood at her mother’s behest. Once there, she decided to audition for the big college choir and met choral director and vocal instructor, Charles Lindsley. He asked if she had ever studied singing because he thought her voice was “very interesting.”

Thinking vocal studies might deliver the emotional connection she had experienced through church music, she changed her major without even auditioning. This new direction was further shaped when, after their first lesson, Lindsley, thinking she was a mezzo, handed her a recording of mezzo-soprano Christa Ludwig singing Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder.

“When I first listened to the five songs, I cried. They were so beautiful. I remember putting the songs on my junior recital along with Cherubino and Azucena, among other interesting choices. But what was so magical to me was that as I sang these songs, I watched the audience [and] I was able to feel from their eyes how my singing was moving them—and truly, for the first time in my life, I felt truly beautiful.

“I was always chunky with bad skin and not a great dresser. I wore black every day along with a long black cape with a black hood, white makeup, black fingernails . . . truly I was goth while the world was working on flower power.” To this day, she favors a mostly black wardrobe—albeit perhaps with a bit more glamour—including chic, brightly colored eyeglasses and fashionable earrings, which she has been known to order by the dozens and give spontaneously to students in a lesson.

Lindsley persuaded her to continue on to graduate studies despite her misgivings. “My teacher Charles Lindsley is the entire reason I went to grad school,” she says. “I did not want to go as I repeatedly said, ‘You know, Chuck, I can’t make a real living out of singing.’ It just would never be, I was just . . . having fun, and now I had to get a job. I never auditioned for grad school or even undergrad school. I had no scholarship but, somehow, he wouldn’t take no for an answer.

“He said there was a teacher who I should study with, David Scott of California State University–Northridge (CSUN). He did full opera and had a big reputation. So, I did a studio audition for [Scott] and I went in confident in the fact that I was a mezzo, singing ‘O don fatal.’ I don’t remember what else I sang, but at the end of the audition David said, ‘Well, I like your voice and, sure, I’d love for you to be in the studio’ —and, by the way, that I wasn’t a mezzo! How wrong could Chuck have been? This guy couldn’t even hear I was a mezzo! I moaned to Chuck, and he said, ‘Just go and see what happens.’

“At the start of the fall semester, David gave me a score of Tosca and said, ‘I know you can sing this.’ I said, ‘The entire thing?’ So, I dutifully learned two excerpts: the aria, of course, and then the trio in Act 2 when they drag the tenor off screaming, and she screams a big high C as well. I had looked at the score and thought it seemed like a mezzo-y kind of role, only a few high notes and lots of low—OK mezzos could sing it! Great.”

Thus began the development of her enormous career as a soprano with a defining role, Tosca (in CSUN’s 500-seat theater, in English), and another, Donna Anna (Don Giovanni), along with Nettie Fowler (Carousel), Second Lady (The Magic Flute), Ellen Orford (Peter Grimes), and the West Coast premiere of Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra, which she later sang at Carnegie Hall.

By her recollection, Vaness has performed an astounding 79 different roles and, when asked, she regrets none. In fact, she repeated most throughout her career.

One possible exception, she says, was Olympia (The Tales of Hoffmann), which was stressful as she was performing all three soprano roles in the production. It was at the request of James Levine, for whom she “would sing the phone book if he asked. For all his problems, he had a way of explaining music that was . . . everything I thought something should be. He was one of the greatest conductors I’ve ever worked with. Levine just wanted you to sound good.”

According to Vaness, a major key to her versatility was always singing “with my voice and my technique. I was not afraid to sing Gilda or Leonora or Manon Lescaut or Manon or Mimì or Magda. I will admit to plenty of respect and a bit of fear with the three sets of Normas I did in my life.

“But in a big career there is no such thing as anonymity, so I always had to be ready and as fearless as possible . . . even if some like to say you can do a big career and not be scared, ‘Ha, ha, ha,’ I say. I had more upset stomachs and shakes in my life than I care to count. But it taught me how to take care of my voice and how to become a great interpreter without freaking out.”

The other key to her success was never stopping voice lessons. Vaness suffered an early vocal hemorrhage at the age of 26 when she was in San Francisco Opera’s Young Artist Program, which was “one of the gigantic moments of my life,” she says. “Well it didn’t seem so profound at the time, but as life went on, I realized that taught me how not to push in my middle voice. But one month I was totally silent (because in those days you were silent)—and in that one month, I went down to David. Because I had to restudy my voice all over again.”

She continued checking in regularly with David Scott until he passed away in 2012. Either she would fly to Los Angeles or she would fly him to where she was working, even to Amsterdam, where she performed her first Lady Macbeth. “He was a great calming force,” she says, “although, I have to say, you either have decent nerves or you don’t!”

Her nerves were tested many times over. After graduate school, she was eliminated in the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions—a likely hiccup to a fledgling professional singer. For her, however, it was fortuitous and curiously tied her entire career to one role.

“When I was in the Met auditions,” she says, “I sang Violetta for my opening aria. And they said, ‘We don’t want you to sing ‘Sempre libera’ [in the final]. Meanwhile, [Plácido] Domingo said to me, ‘You can sing Traviata anywhere you want, you can do it,’ and I was just like, ‘OMG! Domingo’s talking to me.’ But I was shocked [at] how easy it was. I was like, ‘This is my part!’

“I actually sang it a lot more and with greater success. To me, I felt like it was a better success for me, but the world didn’t think so. They go, ‘Oh, she’s great! Listen to her Countess!’ and I’m going, ‘Blech.’ It’s weird because I never ever had one performance of the Countess that I said, ‘I love singing the Countess.’ I mean, I hated it.

“For me Traviata started as my party piece. I sang the aria everywhere. I sang it at every audition. And it wasn’t until I got to the Met [auditions] that they wouldn’t let me sing it.”

Afterwards, she called Kurt Adler, who had heard her audition for the Merola Opera Program. She told him she had lost the Met competition, and Houston Grand Opera had offered her a spot in their Young Artist Program with several roles and covers, including Aida, but she was nervous. “I basically said . . . I don’t think I can do it, I’m really scared,” she recalls. “Really scared. And he said, ‘Well, OK, I will call you back.’

“I hung up. He called me back in about 30–40 minutes and he said, ‘Be in San Francisco February 14!’ I’m like [mouth agape], and he said, ‘And you have someone special to thank!’ I was like [shrugs, looking confused].

“And then he said that Beverly Sills had agreed to go to Atlantic Richfield and get the money for me to be part of the Young Artist Program in San Francisco. But, on his word—she had never heard me sing. She took his word for it, and that’s how I ended up there.”

After her residency in San Francisco (then Affiliate Artists, now the Adler Fellowship Program), Sills became one of Vaness’ most influential mentors and was instrumental in her career, significantly with her role debut as—ironically—Violetta in La traviata at New York City Opera. On opening night, sick with a viral infection, Vaness had to suddenly stop in the middle of her aria “È strano! Ah, fors’è lui. Sempre libera degg’io” right before the cabaletta. When she came back to the production four days later, “still on antibiotics but OK,” for the second performance, Sills gave her some essential singer’s advice.

“Listen, when you go out to sing,” Sills said, “don’t go out to prove you can sing it—you have to go out to just sing it. Not to prove it. Because somebody will always find something they really love or really hate.”

Being a young singer, Vaness says, “Proving [is] how you deal with always feeling like you’re in competition. But, you know, if we tried to prove less and express more, it would be way better. Truthfully.”

As her career developed, she transitioned from relationships with musical colleagues as mentors to collaborators, notably with conductor Riccardo Muti. Despite clashes of professional opinions over the years, so valued was their musical partnership that when Vaness became vocally unwell in a series of Tosca concert performances and was advised by a doctor not to sing, Muti cancelled the entire concert rather than hire another soprano. After Vaness retired from the opera stage, Muti continued their collaboration with invitations to co-adjudicate the Sir Georg Solti International Conducting Competition at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

She recapitulates some of his most important advice: “Look! If you just do what [the composers] put [in the score] . . . I don’t care if you breathe or not! Listen, the audience will never forgive you if you try to sing a phrase but don’t make it with the breath. But no one will even notice—if your tone is beautiful and your expression is going—if you take a breath.”

Indeed, singers are continually critiqued on tone and expression, at the very least, erudite or not. Early in her fame, Vaness was compared to Maria Callas, Eleanor Steber and, more obscurely, Ilva Ligabue—during her days at Glyndebourne (which at one point hilariously included climbing trees with longtime colleague and friend mezzo-soprano Delores Ziegler).

Luciano Pavarotti, with whom Vaness first sang as a young artist in San Francisco, made an entertaining comparison himself. “I was in one of the rehearsals,” she remembers, “and someone came up to me and said, ‘Ms. Vaness, I’m sorry, but Madame Caballé will not be doing the rehearsal today. We’d like you to do it.’ I’m going [gasps], ‘I don’t even know it [in Italian] yet!’ Of course, in my college we did it in English, [and] I started studying it in Italian. But I was just like, ‘Well, OK, I’ll just go ahead and do it.’

“So, I’m standing in the wings waiting . . . and it gets closer and closer and I sing, ‘Mario, Mario, Mario,’ and Luciano stops and says, ‘But that is not Caballé,’ turns around, opens the door, and goes, ‘Son qui!’ It was so funny.

Years later, in their 1993 Met production with Levine and Sherrill Milnes, Pavarotti remembered their first encounter. “At one point in the rehearsal,” she says, “I walked over and I said, ‘Luciano, it’s so great to be singing this with you,’ and he said, ‘Yes.’ And I said, ‘Do you remember me?’ And he said, ‘Yes, you are not Caballé.’ That was pretty funny.”

But of any and all comparisons, she says, “I’m just like, ‘OK you have your opinion. I’m going straight forward now.’ And it’s basically because I choose not to think about it. I wake up every morning grateful for something.”

She has always been true to herself in both her career and personal life, no matter the reviews—good or bad, public or private. Regarding insecurity, she says, “You know, all my life I never thought my voice was big enough to be heard. But, [if] I sang Mimì on the stage of the San Francisco Opera, then it’s big enough!”

Regarding professional pressures young singers face, Vaness says, “In all honesty, I never met anyone I thought I had to [do something for] to get anywhere.” Through personal disappointments and heartbreak, including the deaths of her father and sister to cancer, divorces, lost friendships—all while traveling for work—she knows “when to be Carol T. Vaness and when to be Carol Vaness.” She is both. She has made and maintained ownership of herself and her voice throughout her distinguished career and looks back on her life’s work “with great fondness and amazement. It’s truly amazing, everything I did.”

Elisabeth Marshall

Elisabeth Marshall is a freelance solo and ensemble soprano in recital, oratorio, opera, and musical theatre and has sung across the U.S., Canada, Europe, and South America. Now based in Chicago, she has previously served on the voice faculties of the Ithaca College School of Music and the University of Southern Maine School of Music. She holds a DM from the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music and was a Fulbright scholar to Leipzig, Germany. To learn more, visit www.elisabethmarshall.com.