Giving Back: Carole Farley
American soprano, and much loved principal singer at the Metropolitan Opera, Carole Farley has enjoyed a thriving musical career since her debut as Mimì in La bohème in 1975. She is greatly admired for her evocative portrayal of characters such as Lulu, Salome, Cio-Cio San, Tosca, Kundry, Violetta, and Constanze, but is particularly revered for her pioneering interpretation of non-traditional operatic roles.
Having devoted much of her career to newer music, Farley has sung works from the manuscripts of Janáček, Schoenberg, Weill, Britten, Rorem, Bernstein, Bolcom, Ernesto Lecuona, Aubert Lemeland, and the conductor José Serebrier (to whom she is married). Her ecclectic catalogue of recordings includes vocal dalliances with the music of Delius, Satie, Fauré, Debussy, Grieg, Milhaud, Prokofiev, Richard Strauss, Tchaikovsky, and Gershwin, to name but a mere few.
Final Note spoke with the vivacious soprano in her New York apartment about her early career, life at the Met, filming opera, and her new endeavor, ‘Carole Farley International Coaching’.
Basically, I lived and breathed music in every possible situation, and what really became interesting to me then was the combination of music and drama."
You debuted professionally at the Metropolitan Opera as Mimì in La bohème in 1975, which was followed by a successful stint in the title role of Alban Berg’s Lulu, under the baton of James Levine — what are your memories of this time?
Both productions were groundbreaking work at the time and completely different. Teresa Stratas was contracted to do the premiere of Lulu and several other perfomances. She didn’t like anything about the production, so cancelled way before the rehearsals had even started. So, they fell into my lap — a very lucky break for me! James Levine was wonderful to work with, and John Dexter was a very fine director…but not always an easy man. The production was a great success. It got lots of press and gave me my first cover on Opera News, as well as articles in Time, and Newsweek. We had stunning costumes and décor, and it was a very fine production that remained in the repertoire until only recently.
A year before my Met debut came my debut (1976) with the New York City Opera as Hélène in La Belle Hélène, which also went on tour to Los Angeles to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. In 1976 I gave birth to my daughter Lara, who after that travelled with me everywhere I ever sang.
Did you make a conscious decision to tackle the more gritty roles in your early career, such as Lulu and the unnamed woman in Poulenc’s La Voix Humaine, among many others?
Not at all…it just happened. Once I achieved success as Lulu, everyone wanted me as Lulu. I had to turn down many offers so that I would not become known solely for this role…and also to preserve my voice. At the same time, I was also doing La bohème, La traviata, Bartered Bride, Les Contes d’Hoffmann, Don Giovanni, and many other standard roles. As I was a good musician who could learn music (sometimes quickly), I was asked to do many contemporary operas as well as many roles which I considered wrong for my voice such as: Queen of the Night, Fanciulla del West (with Felsenstein) and Zerbinetta. La Voix Humaine came much later, and it definitely became a staple in my repertoire. I was generally attracted to roles, whether contemporary or traditional, that I could lay my teeth into both dramatically and musically. I was asked to do Salome many times before I finally accepted — it was definitely one of my favorite roles. Among my cherished colleagues were Astrid Varnay, Grace Hoffman, Karl Ridderbush, Rosalind Elias, and many others.
I never come into a production to do my version. I adapt what I already know, and become a sort of chameleon by rethinking the whole character."
Having made the role of Lulu your own over an extended career, how has your interpretation of the character and her music developed over the years?
Lulu is a great role, a tour-de-force and a real vehicle for success. I loved the many facets of her character, and I always tried to sing Berg as if it were Puccini (with great line and beauty of tone). Eventually, I sang over 150 performances…I think, and I was always very careful about the spacing of the performances, and not mixing other operas into a run of Lulu performances.
Each time one does a production with a different regisseur, conductor, and team of singers, one’s interpretation is inevitably changed. I never come into a production to do my version. I adapt what I already know, and become a sort of chameleon by rethinking the whole character. We are a team working together to create what the composer had in mind, and there are many ways to look at it.
Of course, I grew musically, vocally and dramatically, as I changed with each production. May I also add that I performed it in 4 different languages (including the French and Canadian premieres)! In Germany I had many incredible colleagues including Anny Schlemm, Martha Modl, and Astrid Varnay as Gershwitz.
As a fledgling soprano embarking on an international career, did you encounter many challenges in the early days of the 1970s and 1980s — what advice would you give to young sopranos of today?
Today, there are so many talented singers who are so well-trained out there. When I was starting out, I was incredibly lucky to be in the right place at the right time, but I was also very well prepared for any difficulties that might come my way. If I didn’t know something, I figured it out really quickly. One year I had to learn 9 new roles, which was difficult, but I relished the challenge. I have a really huge musical curiosity, and I also love learning. I have tons of advice for young singers — so much that I have finally started coaching them musically, dramatically and mentoring them. They need nurturing and career advice on how to get work.
The single best thing that can happen is for them to be cast in a role, and to learn by doing. One cannot learn that in a practice room. It takes being in an ensemble and a theatre to really learn how to pace a role, create a character, and become that personage. One of the biggest challenges for any singer is finding the right roles to sing. One doesn’t really know if a role is right until one tries it, and to try it out one needs the chance to perform it — a real catch 22 for sure!
What was it like to perform as the principal singer at the Met?
Amazing really! I met so many wonderful colleagues there with whom I have since met in other houses all over the world. The Met is such a large house, but at least for me, it’s very easy to sing there. The acoustic is fantastic, and the people are fabulous. Everyone really helps you. The orchestra, chorus, crew, and the many people who work there are at the top of their respective fields, and this all contributes to making our job easier. A real highlight of my career was my performance in Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District. I knew when I saw it performed at Juilliard years before, that I would one day sing that role. The first Met production was by Graham Vick — a very successful one — it’s a beast of an opera (a description coined by Tony Pappano, when I spoke with him after his performance of it at the Royal Opera!).
In your extensive recording portfolio, why have you sidestepped the Italian operatic repertoire in favor of works by those such as Marschner, Tchaikovsky, and Richard Strauss?
I sang plenty of Italian opera, but I don’t feel that my voice is particularly Italianate in timbre. It’s more suited to Strauss, Tchaikovsky, French opera, and even Mozart. Anyway, it was just how things happened. I love Italian opera, but I love even more those operas with complex musical and dramatic plots. I guess many people think opera means ‘Italian’, but to me it means something else, much bigger in nature. I love Russian, French, Czech and German operas too, and feel closer to them.
Why does Art Song enchant you so?
I have always been in love with lieder: it’s such a great art form, and because of the fusion between poetry and music, it is so full of passion and meaning. I dreamed up recording projects based on every song imaginable, from Lecuona to Delius, and Grieg to Kurt Weill — American composers…even a crossover CD of songs by Gershwin, Harold Arlen and Kurt Weill. Even with the volume of songs that I have recorded, I have hardly scratched the surface of what there is out there.
Once, in Paris, I went to the apartment of Mme Lina Prokofiev, who gave me a big stack of his songs from her closet saying: “You must sing these songs, no one sings them!” I took them back to my London flat and put them away for maybe 5 or 6 years, because I was so busy. Eventually, I took them out and could not believe how fantastic they were. I set about choosing those that suited my voice, and proceeded to record them (2 complete CDs)…and there are hundreds more. Later on, I got to know the Prokofiev famiy in London very well. By then, Mme Prokofiev had left Paris and moved to London. She was an extraordinary woman who spoke 8 languages fluently, and was a former singer. In addition to recording the songs, I sang them in the Blackheath Festival where Simon Callow narrated the songs in English, and I sang them in Russian.
Another project was the songs of Ernesto Lecuona: I went to the publishers and went through the songs one by one to see which ones suited me. My pianist, John Constable, had to construct the accompaniments because there was literally nothing there but chords. With the Grieg songs, I looked at the Peters edition and could not believe how they jumped off the page at me. The songs were crying out for orchestration. So, I asked my husband if he would orchestrate them, and he did 14 of them for me. We recorded them in London with the Philharmonia Orchestra and the London Philharmonic. Of course, I had to learn Norwegian to sing them!
How did you meet your husband José Serebrier, and as an artist, what is it like to work with your husband?
We met in Carnegie Hall in New York, at a rehearsal of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by one of his teachers, Antal Dorati. He was supposed to have a date with a stewardess, but because of a snowstorm she never showed up. We were the only two people in the audience.
We work very well together, as we understand each other musically. We also work a lot separately, and have totally different careers. It’s very easy to sing with him because he can follow and can lead: both are important. Also, he is masterful at balancing the orchestra with a voice, or an instrument.
How did the opportunity to film Poulenc’s La Voix Humaine and Menotti’s The Telephone arise?
We made a film initially in Australia for the ABC, and I filmed it in two different languages, both French and English — that was a challenge for sure! Later, the BBC became interested in doing a co-production with London/Decca for BBC TV, and we filmed it in Scotland with the orchestra in Edinburgh and me in Glasgow. This was not in playback but live — the first production to do so, I think. I thought it was a terrible idea to mouth to the sound…it always looked so fake, so we agreed to try to do it live, and it worked!
What is your process for preparing for a concert appearance, or recording project?
For a concert or opera I always start with the words, then add the music. I coach myself and play for myself, until I need to check my memory when I go to a pianist. It’s the same really for recording. I read all available background material: poems, stories, novels or whatever applies to the work. I listen to many recordings to form my own ideas about what I want to do. It is wonderful to have online resources to help us study the singers of the past, as well as those of the present. Also, I try to go to as many performances of opera, orchestral concerts, recitals and films as I can.
For a recording project there is also research involved to assemble the repertoire and find the music. For instance, when I was assembling the Kurt Weill project, I went to Kim Kowalke (President of the Kurt Weill Foundation in New York), and he helped me to find repertoire that had never been done, and combine it with some of the known ones — that was so helpful. Basically, I use every resource I can think of.
Tell us about your collaborations with Ned Rorem, William Bolcom, and Lowell Liebermann.
I had an idea that it would be interesting to do an American song project for Naxos with the composers as pianist. So the first person I approached was Ned Rorem, who was a friend. I telephoned him to ask if he would play for me when I recorded them, and he replied: “I hate to practise, so no I don’t want to, sorry”. About an hour later, he called back to say he had changed his mind. So, we chose a venue (church) next to his Nantucket home to make it easier for him. He was great to work with.
With Bill Bolcom, I knew him too, so I requested lots of scores from his publishers. I looked through them all and chose those that I liked, in accordance with Bill’s advice. Bill agreed to play for me, and we recorded the songs together in the UK with his wife Joan Morris (wonderful singer!) there too in the booth, helping Bill turn pages.
I also conceived a concert at the Wigmore Hall with Ned, Bill and Lowell Lieberman. Lowell, who was a great friend and whose songs I had performed with him in several concerts, joined us. But, Ned decided that he couldn’t travel (he hates to travel), so my pianist John Constable stepped in and played his songs. I added some of the Lecuona songs for good measure (because they are sort of ‘popular’, and I thought the audience would like them).
How has your voice changed over the years, and what repertoire are you most comfortable singing these days?
My voice has naturally darkened and gotten lower. In the Lulu days I had a very good high ‘E’, but these days I am more comfortable in a lower tessitura. So, my repertoire changed from being a kind of lyric-dramatic with coloratura possibilities, to more dramatic repertoire such as Wozzeck, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Salome, Parsifal, Walkure, and such repertoire.
These days I have even added The Old Lady in Bernstein’s Candide, and Janáček to my previous roles. I am still doing some opera, concerts, and chamber music (a great love of mine) in festivals. I recently sang the Prokofiev Akhmatova Songs [Five Poems of Anna Akhmatova] in New York at the New York Chamber Music Festival, accompanied by Linda Hall from the Met. I had not sung them since 1985 — all went well!
What motivates your interest in Hispanic music?
I love the Spanish language, and I love speaking other languages! With Spanish, there is a lot of neglected music from composers such as Lecuona, Guastavino, Villa Lobos, Montsalvatge (whom I knew well), and many others who are in South America, or Spain. I have spent a lot of time for instance singing in Buenos Aires at the great Teatro Colon, so I have gotten to know many Argentinian composers who deserve to be more widely known. The same thing is true in Spain, Brazil, and elsewhere.
What role does music play in your household today?
My household is always full of music. Thank goodness we have a large one. There is so much music…it is literally everywhere! Both the London and New York apartments are full of music and music making. Now that I am teaching as well as performing, I have students coming for lessons, as well as rehearsing for myself.
Do you have a philosophy of life?
Not a conscious one, but I love everything about music and the arts: performing; researching; teaching; listening; and the process of creating something and bringing it to fruition. I love the fact that every day is completely different, that something is always changing, and that nothing is ever the same. Now I want to give back some of what I have learned over the course of an extraordinary and fascinating life and career. I have been very very lucky, but I believe one also makes one’s luck too.
It was very important to me not only to have a family, but to have that family with me and not at home cared for by someone else. So I always took my daughter Lara everywhere with me. I put her in the Lycée Français, which has the same school system all over the world. She went to school in France, Belgium, Germany, Uruguay, Australia, Switzerland, and many other countries. Eventually, one year when I made 23 trips across the Atlantic Ocean, I decided we needed a European base, so we bought a London flat (one of the best decisions I ever made) — that way, we could be in London in an hour from the Continent. Subsequently, she went to the American School in London, but she is entirely bi-lingual, and has had an extraordinary education all over the world. I wanted to give her this gift. I believe most Americans don’t speak enough languages, and language is a very important means of communication.
What inspired you to set up the company, ‘Carole Farley International Vocal Coaching’?
I did so in order to share what I have learned. I coach young singers in repertoire, and help them with languages, dramatic coaching of their roles, and in every aspect of our profession. I advise them on how to prepare recitals, CDs, auditions, find management, and just about anything they may need. I am engaged in career preparation and guidance, and mentor them by putting them in touch with former colleagues and artistic directors of opera houses and managers. I am trying to help them build careers and guide them in repertoire choices. Some of my students live in various parts of the world so sometimes I teach by Skype when it’s not possible for them to be in New York or London.