Episode 11. Janet Williams III

Episode 11. Janet Williams Interview Part III: Der ganze Unterschied



Janet Williams as Poppea in Agrippina. Halle Händel-Festspiele 1999.
Photo by Gert Kiermeyer.

In the third and final part of our interview, recorded in July 2019, Janet Williams and I discuss how we reunited in 2004 (several years after our Merola connection); about her vocal studies with Régine Crespin, Denise Duplex, and David Jones; about some of the roles she sang during the illustrious career which took her around the world; and about her current activities with her newly-formed Leistung & Performance Vokal Akademie here in Berlin, where singers gain invaluable professional training in all aspects of what she calls “this illustrious but very difficult profession.” As always, the interview is interspersed with musical interludes and commentary, which are all cited below.

Dan and Janet, Berlin, July 2012, several months before I moved here permanently.


Pascal Dusapin: Perelàl’homme de fumée (excerpt). Daniel Gundlach (L’archevêque); Alain Altinoglu conducting the Orchestre National de Montpellier and the Chœurs de l’Opéra National de Montpellier. Naïve Records MO 782168 (2004). Others in the cast include John Graham-Hall, Nora Gubisch, Isabelle Philippe, Chantal Perraud, Scott Wilde, Nicolas Courjal and Martine Mahé. In the world premiere performances, in February 2003 at Opéra Bastille, conducted by James Conlon, I sang the role of Le Perroquet [The Parrot] while Dominique Visse created the role of the Archevêque. In the Montpellier performances which took place several months later, I sang the role that Dominique created. Some time I will tell more about this amazing experience, but for now, just two photos, one of me on the stage of the Bastille as the Perroquet (taken by Dominique, who is also a very gifted photographer) and the other of me as the Archevêque, as reproduced in the booklet of the Naïve recording.

Janet Williams as Porporina in L’Opera Seria, Berliner Staatsoper Unter den Linden.
Photo by Monika Rittershaus
Janet Williams with Jeffrey Francis in L’Opera Seria,
Berliner Staatsoper Unter den Linden 1994.
Photo by Monika Rittershaus

Florian Leopold Gassmann: Delfin che a laccio infido (L’Opera Seria). Janet Williams. Live performance from the Berliner Staatsoper Unter den Linden (1994). Other cast members included Laura Aikin, Efrat Ben-Nun Curtis Rayam, Dominique Visse, and Ralf Popken. Janet gives a virtuoso (and hilarious) performance here. It’s worth clicking on the link to watch her antics, perfectly in sync with the figurations in the music.

Georges Bizet: Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante (Carmen). Mary Mills (Micaëla); Neeme Järvi, conductor. Live performance (2000) from the Opéra Bastille. During her time on the world’s major operatic stages, Mary Mills was a force of nature. Her deeply-ingrained musicianship and increasingly powerful voice enabled her to put her stamp on whatever repertoire she undertook. She happened to be singing at the Bastille as Marguerite in Faust opposite Rolando Villazon while I was appearing in the Dusapin world premiere in the same house in the Winter of 2003. I heard her in performance and found her to be exquisite, but our paths didn’t actually cross until a few years later at that marvelous Kaffeeklatsch chez Williams-Berndt. that we describe in the podcast. Like Janet, she now works as a teacher in Berlin. I was honored to be able to work with her as she was preparing works by both Wagner and Dvořák for performance. These were some of the most thrilling and rewarding coaching sessions I have experienced in my long years as a Korrepetitor [vocal coach]. I also saw her at the Deutsche Oper in the role of Johanna [Joan of Arc] in Walter Braunfels’s superb and compelling opera Szenen aus dem Leben der Heiligen Johanna, in which she gave a performance that ranks among the greatest I have seen on the operatic stage. Numerous and varied clips of her singing are available on YouTube. Check her out, people!

Mary Mills as Joan of Arc in Walter Braunfels’s Szenen aus der Leben der heiligen Johanna,
Deutsche Oper Berlin, 2010.

Jeff Barry, Ellie Greenwich: Do Wah Diddy Diddy. Manfred Mann. from The Manfred Mann Album, Ascot Records AM 13015 / ALS 16015 (1964). Just another of my comic interpolations in the middle of a very serious interview!

Manfred Mann, 1967. To the uninitiated, yes; they were a group!
L to R: Tom McGuinness, L to R: Dave Berry, Klaus Voormann, Mike Hugg, Manfred Mann, Mike d’Abo.

Carl Heinrich Graun: Two arias from Cleopatra e Cesare. Janet Williams (Cleopatra). Live telecast from the Berliner Staatsoper Unter den Linden, 1992. It was her appearance in this extraordinary production of this rare Graun opera that confirmed Janet as an operatic sensation. It is such fun for those of us who know and love her off the stage to see her imperious, playful, sexy characterization.

Giacomo Puccini: Il Tabarro [excerpt]. Clara Petrella (Giorgetta); Mirto Picchi (Luigi); Oliviero de Fabritiis conducting the Orchestra e Coro di Milano della RAI. Cast also includes Carlo Tagliabue as Michele. I find two different dates attached to this television production, 1954 and 1957. My gut instinct tells me it is the former. I BEG OF ALL OF YOU, PLEASE TAKE AN HOUR AND WATCH THIS VIDEO! This is the height of verismo style, performed with guts and distinction by a cast totally versed in the idiom. I cannot say enough about this video. Clara Petrella was a goddess of this repertoire; Mirto Picchi deserves to be remembered for more than just his fairly workaday Giasone on the curiously lackluster Callas studio recording of Medea; and Carlo Tagliabue is chilling, compelling, and sympathetic in equal measure.

Clara Petrella as Giorgetta and Mirto Picchi as Luigi in the 1950s RAI TV production of Il Tabarro.

Giacomo Puccini: Che tua madre (Madama Butterfly). Mafalda Favero (Butterfly). Live performance from the Grand Théâtre de Genève, 1947. The cast also includes Giacinto Prandelli as Pinkerton, Scipio Colombo as Sharpless, Gabriella Galli as Suzuki and an “Unknown Conductor” conducting the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. Like the Tabarro above, this recently rediscovered live performance is an invaluable document in verismo style. Like Antonietta Stella and Rosanna Carteri, Mafalda Favero was blessed with movie-star looks and a voice, musicianship, and style that equipped her for the challenges that Puccini and his fellow Italians posed to their singers. Enormous chunks of this performance are available on YouTube and once again, I BEG YOU ALL to listen to these. I recently got a pirate copy of the complete performance on CD and I cannot wait to listen to the entire thing.

Janet Williams, not as Violetta, but as Musetta in La Boheme.

Giuseppe Verdi: Violetta-Germont duet (La Traviata). Janet Williams (Violetta); Andreas Poulimenos (Germont). Live performance ca. 1991 at the Wharton Center for the Performing Arts, East Lansing, MI. It’s interesting to hear Janet describe the circumstances under which she sang a string of more-or-less complete performances of Traviata while an Adler Fellow in San Francisco. Not the most congenial of circumstances! This performance is evidently from around the same time. Thanks to Eric Schlossberg for helping to enhance the poor sound quality of the original files as posted on YouTube!

George Frideric Handel: Myself I Shall Adore (Semele). Janet Williams (Semele). Live performance, Berliner Staatsoper Unter den Linden, ca. 1993. I know I have posted excerpts from Janet’s performance of this aria before, but I find it to be a particularly compelling example of her ability to sing florid music with enormous aplomb, taste, style, and vigor.

Janet also mentioned the first Handel opera production she did while a member of the Adler Fellow program of the San Francisco Opera Center. That was a performance of Giustino conducted by Nicholas McGegan. Janet gave me a photo of her in that production alongside Patricia Spence, who was another of our fellow Merolini. Here they are:

Janet Williams and Patricia Spence in Handel’s Giustino, San Francisco 1989

And here is a review of the production written by Herbert Glass which appeared in the Los Angeles Times: ” While one admired the stylish aplomb with which the entire cast negotiated the Handelian fioritura, the evening was dominated by Janet Williams’ exquisite Arianna, empress of this Classical never-never land. Her every pose elicited sympathy; every note was finely tuned, with a sensitivity to dynamics that might serve as a model for singers far more experienced, and with, alone among the cast, a serviceable trill. All these qualities came together in her heart-stopping Act II aria, ‘Quel torrente.'”

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Vorrei spiegarvi, o Dio. Ann Panagulius, soprano; Samuel Cristler conducting the Sinfonia San Francisco. Live performance ca. 1990. Ann and I were on tour together in the Western Opera Theater production of Don Pasquale that followed on the summer that Janet and I spent in Merola; Ann herself had participated in Merola the previous summer. She went on to sing the title role in Berg’s Lulu at the San Francisco Opera in 1990. She is a fine person of enormous integrity whose friendship I have enjoyed for many years now. And as you can hear, she was also a hell of a singer in her day! (And BTW, Régine Crespin proved to be an important mentor to Ann as well; we spoke about it in an interview that she did with me another lifetime ago!)

Ann Panagulias in 1989, San Francisco
Crespin as the Prima Donna in Ariadne, Aix, 1966

Richard Strauss: Marschallin’s Monologue [excerpt] (Der Rosenkavalier). Régine Crespin (The Marschallin); Louis de Froment conducting the Orchestre de la RTF. Radio performance, 1962. Mme. Crespin offers a little commentary on how important it is to find one’s way through life with dignity, compassion, and perseverance. She penned an autobiography which is available in both the original French and in an expanded English translation. I’ve not yet gotten my hands on it, but I understand there is a lot of gossip therein as well as frank discussion of many of the more unhappy aspects of her life. I, for one, am grateful that in spite of all of this, she made left us with such a beautiful and wide-ranging legacy which I will explore in a further episode in early 2020.

Judith Blegen as Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Durch Zärtlichkeit und Schmeicheln (Die Entführung aus dem Serail). Judith Blegen (Blondchen). I can’t find out too much about the movie from which this clip emanates, except that it is from a German television production of the complete opera in 1969, which would have been at the very beginning of Judith Blegen’s career; that it also features Anneliese Rothenberger, Werner Krenn, Gerhard Stolze, Oskar Czerwenka, and Peter Pasetti in the cast; and that it is a precious document of Blegen in particular. Blegen went on to become a mainstay at the Metropolitan Opera until a chronic health condition forced her into early retirement in 1991. She is married to the former concertmaster of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Raymond Gniewek and is one of my very favorite light-voiced sopranos. Rest assured that I will be doing a program on her sometime in the New Year.

Richard Strauss: Presentation of the Rose [excerpt] (Der Rosenkavalier ). Helen Donath (Sophie); Georg Solti conducting the Wiener Philharmoniker. from the complete recording also featuring Régine Crespin, Yvonne Minton, Manfred Jungwirth and others. Decca SET 418-21 / London OSAL-1435 (1969). Helen Donath was, along with Lucia Popp, probably the finest Sophie of the past 50 years. She later graduated to the role of the Marschallin, which she sang at Washington Opera in 1991, a production which also featured Janet Williams as Sophie.

Janet Williams as Sophie and Helen Donath as the Marschallin. Washington Opera 1995.
Janet told me that this occasion marked her first Sophie and Helen’s first Marschallin

Richard Strauss: Großmächtige Prinzessin [excerpt] (Ariadne auf Naxos). Reri Grist (Zerbinetta); Karl Böhm conducting the Wiener Philharmoniker. Live performance Salzburg, 21 August 1965. Reri Grist was a remarkable singer who absolutely sparkled as Zerbinetta in particular, as can be witnessed in the video of this live performance from her early prime. Let us also pay tribute to the enormous versatility of this artist, who first appeared on Broadway in 1957, both playing Consuela and singing the iconic song “Somewhere.” Shortly thereafter Leonard Bernstein used her as the soprano soloist in his first recording of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. She went on to make her mark in a wide variety of repertoire from Rosina to Gilda to Blondchen to Aminta in Strauss’s underrated Die schweigsame Frau. She remains active as an important voice teacher.

Hildegard Hillebrecht as Ariadne and Reri Grist as Zerbinetta, Salzburger Festspiele August 1965.
Michèle Crider

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Non mi dir (Don Giovanni). Michèle  Crider (Donna Anna). Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. From the Winners’ Final Concert, Concours de Genève 1989. Michèle Crider was mentioned by Janet as a student of Reri Grist’s who had a completely different vocal profile from her teacher.

Richard Strauss: Elektra-Klytämnestra scene [excerpt] (Elektra). Deborah Polaski (Elektra). James Levine conducting the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Autumn 2002. Also featured in this performance was Marjana Lipovšek as Klytämnestra.

Deborah Polaski, Berlin 2006
Kathleen Battle and Leontyne Price
at Oprah Winfrey’s Legends celebration, 2006

Heitor Villa-Lobos: Aria (Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5). Kathleen Battle, soprano; Lynn Harrell, cello. Live performance from Gallery of the Stars 1985. Though I have some problems with the singing of the artist here represented, there is no denying her value or her impact in the opera world. Interestingly, the cellist Lynn Harrell wrote a comment on this very YouTube posting which I think is worth sharing for the insight he sheds on the link between great singing and great instrumental playing: “I just discovered this! I had forgotten that even I had done it. Useful for this performance Kathy and I did it without conductor for a great performance series at Alice Tully Hall in New York City. Because it is really very difficult particularly the second moment without a conductor, we started rehearsing in September for the performance was in March… After 50 years of talking until my face is blue about the connection of great instrumental playing and great singing, I am betting that 99% of those people that have heard me rant and rave, has [sic] still yet to listen carefully over and over again to great singers and their art. in my teaching I go so far as to say that those who did do this exercise achieved much greater levels of their career.” I would here like to remind (or inform) my readers that Lynn Harrell’s father was the great American baritone Mack Harrell, who is probably best known for his performance of the title role of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck under Dimitri Mitropoulos, but who was also a superb interpreter of a wide range of repertoire from Bach to art song.

George Frideric Handel: Overture to Agrippina. Helsinki Baroque Orchestra. Aapo Häkkinen, conductor. Live performance from the Gulbenkian Auditorium, Lisbon, 22 April 2014. I picked this performance when looking for an orchestral sample from Handel’s Agrippina. And why not? It’s marvelous playing! Kudos to the players.

The Helsinki Baroque Orchestra

George Frideric Handel: Se giunge un dispetto (Agrippina). Karina Gauvin (Poppea); Jeanne Lamon conducting Tafelmusik. from Airs et Danses; Extraits de Agrippina et Alcina (Analeka Records, FL 2 3137) [1999]). The exceptional Canadian soprano Karina Gauvin is one of that rare breed: a current soprano specializing in Baroque repertoire whose singing I consistently enjoy. Kudos to her for her brilliant performance of this, one of Poppea’s florid arias in Handel’s Agrippina.

Karina Gauvin dressing boldly and colo(u)rfully. Just like the way she sings!
Janet Williams (R) as Bystrouška [Sharp-Ears] and Beth Clayton (L) as Zlatohřbítek  [Gold-Spur]
in Příhody lišky Bystroušky [The Cunning Little Vixen], Dallas Opera, 2000

Leoš Janáček: Příhody lišky Bystroušky [The Cunning Little Vixen]. Bohumil Gregor conducting the Orchestra and Chorus of the Prague National Theater. This complete recording (Supraphon 1 12 1181-2, recorded 1971) includes Helena Tattermuschová, Zdeněk Kroupa, Lišák Zlatohřbítek, Eva Zikmundová, Josef Heriban, Jan Hlavsa, and Dalibor Jedlička. Admittedly Janáček is an acquired taste, but this is surely one of his most accessible works and this recording presents an authentically Czech flavor to the proceedings, with performances by some of the most distinguished Czech singers of the era. To those who wish to find an inroad to this fascinating composer, I recommend it without reservation.

Helena Tattermuschová as Vixen Sharp-Ears (a true appellation!)

Richard Strauss: The Marschallin’s Monologue [excerpt] (Der Rosenkavalier). Christa Ludwig (the Marschallin); Leonard Bernstein conducting the Wiener Philharmoniker. Live performance, Wiener Staatsoper 13 April 1968. Christa Ludwig is one of the greatest singers of the 20th Century who bestowed her artistry on a wide range of roles, both mezzo and soprano. As celebrated as a Lieder interpreter as she was in opera, her assumption of the Marschallin proved a compelling undertaking that put her unique abilities on clear display. Though some were troubled by her lack of a distinctly soprano color in this role, I never had a problem with it. Her attention to detail and to the meaning of words grants her a special place in the pantheon of great Marschallins, which includes, for me, Régine  Crespin, Elisabeth Söderström, Gwyneth Jones, and, supremely, Lotte Lehmann. In the second tier of best Marschallins I give special consideration to Lisa Della Casa, Gundula Janowitz, Evelyn Lear, and Sena Jurinac (I only wish that there were audio documentation of Helen Donath in this role!) (And yes, there is at least one celebrated name which does not appear on this list! About her I am, in the words of my late grandmother “keeping my mouth shut.”)

The great Christa Ludwig. Cannes 2013.

Richard Strauss: Finale to Act II [excerpt] (Die Frau ohne Schatten). Janice Baird (Die Färberin [the Dyer’s Wife]). I am not aware of the exact provenance of this recording, but I have to say that it is the most impressive example of Janice Baird’s singing that I have encountered. The fact that she has the perfect physique du rôle is, to quote my favorite tautology, an “added plus.”

Screenshot of Janice Baird as the Färberin in Die Frau ohne Schatten

Traditional American Spiritual: On My Journey. Camilla Williams, soprano; Borislav Bazala, pianist. From Camilla Williams Sings Spirituals (MGM Records E-156, ca. 1953). I love that Janet is going to perpetuate the name and legacy of her pathbreaking teacher Camilla Williams with a recital series that is to bear her name. Is anyone else fascinated by the power dynamic displayed in the photo of Camilla with her mentor Geraldine Farrar, herself a Butterfly of great historical and dramatic significance?

Camilla Williams pictured alongside her mentor Geraldine Farrar
after her New York City Opera debut as Madama Butterfly.
My gracious interviewee
in all her sassy classiness

Johannes Brahms: Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit (Ein deutsches Requiem). Janet Williams, soprano. Daniel Barenboim conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. Erato Records 4509-92856-2 (1993). We bid farewell for now to Janet Williams with much gratitude for her openness, honesty, wit, vulnerability, and eloquence in our interview; for her meticulous and profound artistry; and for her sense of purpose as a teacher and mentor and her profound dedication to her students.

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