• The Exclusive Opera Lively Interview with Sylvia Sass

    Luiz Gazzola traveled to Budapest to interview in person formidable veteran opera singer Ms. Sylvia Sass, one of the greatest sopranos of her generation. [Opera Lively interview # 43] This Grande Dame of opera is a charming, intelligent, and multi-talented lady who is also a very recognized painter, as well as the author of three books and a libretto for a new opera that is in its final stages of creation. Opera Lively is honored to have talked to such an extraordinary artist. Our staff member MAuer has contributed with questions. Regarding photo credits: almost all pictures here with the exception of those from the Castel Sant'Angelo and from the Sacher Hotel in Vienna were recovered from Ms. Sass' official web site. Ms. Sass did tell Almaviva verbally and in person that Opera Lively was allowed to use photos from her web site. There were no specific credits found, so that is why they haven't been quoted.

    © Opera Lively - Disclaimer: this exclusive interview is copyrighted by Opera Lively with all rights reserved, and is not to be reproduced without express authorization. Brief excerpts can be used after consultation (use the Contact Us form) as long as proper credit and a link to the full interview on Opera Lively are provided. Links to the interview can be posted without authorization.
    Artistic Biography:

    Sylvia Sass was born in Budapest in 1951 and studied at the Hungarian Ferenc Liszt Academy of Music. After her debut at the Budapest State Opera in 1971, she won several major competitions in the early 1970’s, notably the First Prize in the 1972 Kodály Competition in Budapest, the Grand Prix in the 1973 Sofia International Opera Competition for her Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata, as well as the Special Prize for the Best Song Interpretation. She won the Second Prize at the 1974 Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow where no First Prize was awarded.

    As a member of the Budapest State Opera from 1972 to 1979, she performed leading roles in the operas Otello, Don Giovanni, La Bohčme, Le nozze di Figaro, Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, Tosca, Il Trovatore, I Lombardi, La Traviata, and Norma. From 1975, Sylvia Sass performed in most of the world’s major opera houses, including: the Royal Opera House Covent Garden (I Lombardi, La Traviata, Un Ballo in Maschera, Don Carlo, and Norma); La Scala (Manon Lescaut, Il Tabarro, Suor Angelica); the Metropolitan Opera (Tosca); and Opéra Garnier de Paris (Roméo et Juliette). She performed as well in the Vienna State Opera (La Bohčme, Tosca); the Hamburg State Opera (Cosě fan tutte, La Traviata, Il Trovatore, Don Carlo); the Bavarian State Opera of Munich (La Traviata), and the Bolshoi Theatre of Moscow (La Traviata).

    Sylvia Sass as Tosca, Metropolitan Opera, 1977

    She has performed solo recitals at renowned concert halls including Carnegie Hall, New York and the Royal Festival Hall, London and has recorded solo albums of operatic arias, and song recitals of Bartók, Liszt (Decca), Wagner, and Richard Strauss (Hungaroton). By singing their leading roles, she has participated in the recording of complete operas for Hungaroton (Cherubini’s Medea, Verdi’s Ernani, I Lombardi, Attila, Macbeth, Respighi’s Belfagor, Erkel’s László Hunyadi), for Decca (Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle, Mozart’s Don Giovanni), and for Philips (Verdi’s Stiffelio).

    A DVD of her masterful 1981 performance of Bartók’s Bluebeard's Castle under the baton of Sir Georg Solti is available (Unitel Classica), as is her La Scala performance of Puccini’s Il Trittico, under the baton of Gianandrea Gavazzeni (NVC Arts). Sylvia Sass was awarded the Honored Artist of Hungary in 1977 and the Hungarian Cross of the Order of Merit in 2007. After a twenty-four year career on the opera stage, she now performs frequently in concerts and recitals, while giving Master Classes throughout the world.

    Sylvia Sass has performed with the most renowned artists:

    • Sir Georg Solti
    • George Prętre
    • Lamberto Gardelli
    • John Pritchard
    • Alain Lombard
    • Sir Charles Mackerras
    • Gianandrea Gavazzeni
    • Kent Nagano
    • Nello Santi
    • Michel Plasson
    • James Conlon
    • Rafael Kubelik
    • Sir Edward Downes
    • Francesco Molinari Pradelli
    • Nicola Rescigno
    • Alberto Erede
    • Olivera de Fabritis
    • Placido Domingo
    • Jose Carreras
    • Renato Bruson
    • Alfredo Kraus
    • Carlo Bergonzi
    • Boris Christoff
    • Piero Cappuccilli
    • Neil Shicoff
    • Grace Bumbry
    • Robert Lloyd
    • Giuseppe Giacomini
    • Jorge Lavelli
    • Jean-Pierre Ponnelle
    • PierLuigi Samaritani
    • Hugo de Ana

    Her repertoire has included:

    • Pénelopé (Monteverdi: Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria)
    • La Contessa (Mozart: Le Nozze di Figaro)
    • Donna Anna, Donna Elvira (Mozart: Don Giovanni)
    • Fiordiligi (Mozart: Cosi fan tutte)
    • Alceste (Gluck: Alceste)
    • Juliette (Gounod: Roméo et Juliette)
    • Norma (Bellini: Norma)
    • Medea (Cherubini: Medea)
    • Violetta (Verdi: La Traviata)
    • Giselda (Verdi: I Lombardi)
    • Desdemona (Verdi: Otello)
    • Amelia (Verdi: Un Ballo in Maschera)
    • Leonora (Verdi: Il Trovatore)
    • Elisabetta (Verdi: Don Carlo)
    • Lady Macbeth (Verdi: Macbeth)
    • Gulnara (Verdi: Il Corsaro)
    • Odabella (Verdi: Attila)
    • Elvira (Verdi: Ernani)
    • Lina (Verdi: Stiffelio)
    • Tosca (Puccini: Tosca)
    • Mimi (Puccini: La Bohčme)
    • Turandot (Puccini: Turandot)
    • Manon Lescaut (Puccini: Manon Lescaut)
    • Suor Angelica (Puccini: Suor Angelica)
    • Giorgetta (Puccini: Il Tabarro)
    • Magda (Puccini: La Rondine)
    • Santuzza (Mascagni: Cavalleria Rusticana)
    • Nedda (Leoncavallo: I Pagliacci)
    • Fedora (Giordano: Fedora)
    • Adriana Lecouvreur (Cilea: Adriana Lecouvrer)
    • Carmen (Bizet: Carmen)
    • Eva (Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg)
    • Salome (Richard Strauss: Salome)
    • Grete (Schrecker: Der Ferne Klang)
    • Candida (Respighi: Belfagor)
    • La dogaressa vedova Gradeniga (Malipiero: Sogno d’un tramonto d’autunno)
    • Szilágyi Erzsébet (Erkel: László Hunyadi)
    • Judit (Bartók: Bluebeard’s Castle)
    • Delila (Szokolay: Sámson)
    • Anya (Durkó: Mózes)


    BARTÓK: Bluebeard's Castle (Video), 1980, Unitel
    BARTÓK: Bluebeard's Castle, 1978, Decca
    CHERUBINI: Medea, 1977, Hungaroton
    DURKÓ: Mózes, 1977, Hungaroton
    ERKEL: Hunyadi László, 1983, Hungaroton
    GOUNOD: Faust (Excerpts), 1973, Hungaroton
    MESSIAEN: Cinq Rechants, 1974, Hungaroton
    MOZART: Don Giovanni (as Donna Elvira), 1978, Decca
    RESPIGHI: Belfagor (as Candida), 1987, Hungaroton
    STRAUSS: Four Last Songs, 1980, Hungaroton
    STRAUSS: Orchestral Songs, 1996, Cant-Art
    VERDI: Attila (as Odabella), 1986, Hungaroton
    VERDI: Ernani, 1980, Philips
    VERDI: I Lombardi (Live), 1976, Standing Room Only
    VERDI: I Lombardi, 1984, Hungaroton
    VERDI: Macbeth, 1986, Hungaroton
    VERDI: Stiffelio (as Lina), 1978, Philips
    VERDI: La Traviata (as Violetta), 1977 (Live), Legendary Recordings (LP only)
    WAGNER: Wesendonk Lieder, 1977, Hungaroton

    Solo Albums

    LISZT: Liszt Songs, 1993, Cant-Art
    LISZT/BARTÓK: Lieder, 1978, Decca
    MOZART: Mozart Arias, 1975, Hungaroton
    PUCCINI/VERDI: Presenting Sylvia Sass, 1976, Decca
    SCHUBERT/BRAHMS: Sylvia Sass/Károly Fekete: Schubert/Brahms, 1997, Cant-Art VARIOUS COMPOSERS: Dramatic Coloratura, 1977, Decca
    VARIOUS COMPOSERS: Operatic and Concert Arias, 1994, Cant-Art
    VARIOUS COMPOSERS: Operatic Arias, 1985, Hungaroton
    VERDI/DONIZETTI: Great Soprano Arias, 1981, Hungaroton
    Nezz Korül (Heart of Glass)
    (a pop/disco album), Hungaroton


    To learn more about the artist's schedule of master classes, recitals, and concerts, as well as for more information about her books and paintings, please visit her tasteful web site (which includes information in English, French, Italian, and Hungarian): [click here]




    OL - After many years as an opera singer, you have written your own opera libretto. Can you please tell us about that? What inspired you to take on this work?

    SS – Yes, it has been some years when I started to write this libretto. La Diva is the title. Well, I was very much influenced by the life of Maria Callas, but it is not her biography at all. There are many scenes that are based on what I read in newspapers and so on, but it’s really not her life.

    I mean, I try to explain the difficulties people go through when somebody is exceptional – how difficult it is to combine private life with professional life, when someone is so concentrated on her career. For me being an opera singer is a devotion, a little bit like a priest.

    If somebody is so involved like Maria was, or other great stars who were really exceptional persons, it is difficult for their entourage to understand that the first thing for them is the music. They live to serve their art, and sometimes because of that they feel very lonely. It is very difficult for them to find somebody who can understand and with whom they can share this type of life they have to live. So my libretto is a drama about an opera singer. I don’t want to tell all the story because I want it to be a surprise, when it is staged.

    OL - Has a composer already started working on the score for this opera?

    SS – Yes, the composer has nearly finished it. He is from Gran Canaria and his name is Alberto Santana. Now he needs to finish up the orchestration. We are close to the time when we’ll be able to propose the opera to theaters. I feel that it is important to create new opera, because sometimes we repeat a little bit the same repertory, which is fantastic, but what will the future be? I feel a little bit responsible for creating operas that can be interesting as a theme. So that’s how I started to write.

    OL – In what language is the libretto written?

    SS - In the beginning it was in Hungarian. But then I found an Italian man who helped me a little bit. I do speak well Italian. I have translated my third book into Italian on my own, but for the opera I needed somebody who could control more naturally the Italian text. So the opera will be in Italian.

    OL - How have your experiences as a singer helped you in writing a libretto?

    SS – Well, I was not thinking as a singer. What I was trying to do was to create roles that are interesting to play. Because I believe that it is very important in opera to realize that it’s not just about the beautiful music, but also about characters who are lively and interesting persons and give to the singers the possibility of working as actors and actresses. I believe that the two main roles in my opera are very interesting characters; so someone singing them will also enjoy the acting part. As an opera singer myself I’ve always enjoyed my work more when the role I was singing was someone like Tosca or Lady Macbeth where the acting is as important as the singing.

    OL – What is the composer’s style; is he composing music that is contemporary and atonal, or is it more lyric?

    SS – When I chose him I wanted to have somebody who was able to write modern music but with roots in the past as well. For instance, when I listened for the first time to Benjamin Britten, I thought, “how exciting; he created his own style without throwing away the past.” I love very much Prokofiev, he did the same, he created a new style but you hear the past in it as well.

    My composer is modern, but he is extraordinary in regards to rhythm. The choir has a very important role in my opera and those choir parts require some changes in the rhythm, a little bit like Orff who plays so much with changing the tempi, which creates a dramatic situation. So he is modern but we can hear the past in it, although with this I don’t want to criticize those composers who don’t follow this way. I just felt that this kind of style is more suitable to the theme of my opera.

    OL - Do you see yourself working on additional librettos in the future?

    SS – No, for the moment I have no other plans, until we have the first staging of La Diva. I should wait. If I see that the reception from the public and the theater is positive, then, maybe. But as a writer I did write three books in Hungarian. My second book was translated into French, and my third one into Italian.


    OL – What are your books about?

    SS – The first book has the title “A Belső Hang” which translates as “The Inner Voice.”

    OL – Is it a memoir about your singing career?

    SS – Not only. I’m always talking much more about my inner life, not the facts that I lived. For instance, there are some parts where I’m analyzing the part of Judit in Bluebeard’s Castle, how I see the role and so on. I also write about my experience with Maria Callas. So, many parts of my life but not in a biographical sense, it’s more about my development not only as a singer, but in general.

    The second book is more like a poem. It’s not really in rhythm so you can’t say it’s poetry, but it is more lyrical. The title is “Az Álmok Éneke” which translates as “The Songs of the Dreams.” I’m not so sure that I’m translating it well. Maybe “Songs of One’s Dreams,” or of your dreams, I don’t know. It was translated into French as “Infinie Mélodie.”

    The third book was “Az Angyalok Bŭvöletében” which is “Incantation of the Angels” – in Italian it was entitled “Incantata degli Angeli.” This third book is also very philosophical.

    You know, I was singing lots of Toscas. During two seasons I was Tosca in Roma, at the Terme di Caracalla. As the book starts I talk about the time when I was singing this role; I finished up and jumped from the Castel Sant’Angelo. Then after the show I called a taxi cab and drove by the Castel Sant’Angelo, so I was thinking, where is reality? I was on stage and feeling that it was my life, and after the show the taxi driver drove me around this place, and – ah, that’s real life. But in my life you can’t throw a line and say that this is the private life, and this is the artistic life.

    In this bridge in front of Castel Sant’Angelo there are statues of angels by Bernini. Then when I talk about my path, everywhere I go, there is an angel in front of every chapter. It’s difficult to express this in English.

    OL – Say it in Italian.

    SS – [She does, and it translates as:] It’s like a path... I walk throughout my life. Each step when I walk on this bridge, there is an angel that protects me; so this is symbolically my life as I take each step, so it is my path in life. I’m talking about that.

    OL – Beautiful. OK, let’s move on to the next question. You are also very busy as a teacher. You have conducted master classes all over the world, and you’re about to go to Japan next.

    SS – Yes, there are master classes that I do regularly. Very often I’m invited to Tokyo to the Musashino Academy, one of the greatest in Japan. There is also a festival in France, Les Art’Scčnes in Nantes, which is done around my master classes. Last year the theme was Don Giovanni, so we invited Teresa Berganza.

    Poster for the Art'Scčnes Festival

    I usually sing in the first concert, then I conduct master classes together with my colleague Thierry Pillon. He is a French stage director, and he is an actor and singer as well. It happens every year. Then I’m doing a master class in Rome at the Hungarian Academy every year, it’s always in January. I also work with the oldest academy for operatic singers in Italy, called Osimo. Last year they asked me for a master class, I accepted, and will do it again next year. Sometimes I’m invited to do master classes in Budapest but I don’t do it regularly.


    OL - What advice do you give your students as they prepare to begin their professional careers? It seems that we frequently read about some young singer who is supposed to be opera’s great new sensation. There is a real risk for these singers that they will fall victim to the public relations hype and the unrealistic expectations that it can create. They then have to live up to an “image” that becomes a great burden to them.

    SS – So, what advice… you know, it’s such a difficult type of life you have to live if you want to become an opera singer! There are so many hard decisions to make about what is more important in your live – your career, or your family life. If someone wants to be an opera singer, the person should be really devoted, and not be asking questions such as “Will I be famous? Will I earn lots of money? Will I have a great career?” and so on. I can talk only about myself. When I started to learn singing, I never asked myself any of these questions. I did it with such love and such enthusiasm, that I just couldn’t do anything else.

    So, you have to listen to that inner voice I wrote about in my first book. If the motivation – why you want to become an opera singer – is weak, then it will be a life full of suffering. But if the music is part of your life, then you’ll do well. Think of the preparation: you prepare maybe for six months to sing a role that maybe you’ll just sing once. If you can’t imagine something like this in your life, then you should better leave it. It’s not a chore.

    So many singers finish their studies in a conservatory and only when they are in their thirties or forties they’ll make some headway as professionals. Few of them will really become professionals. It’s like what Einstein used to say to his students: “don’t learn Physics, it’s too difficult, only a few of you will become great professors.” But you never know who will be exceptional in the new generation. So you need to educate them that life will tell them what to do.

    When they are facing difficulties, if they are not strong enough – because this is another thing I see very often; someone who is so talented but doesn’t have this sort of energy – then several doors will be closed. I tell them, “look for the next door which will be open.” If somebody is too shy, I say, “no, you have to forget about yourself, you just think with the role, with the character’s personality, and the music will guide you.” It all depends a lot on the personality of the singer – if someone is mentally strong, then there is no danger.

    The person needs to be able to say “no, I don’t agree.” For instance, I could have chosen different responses in my life, artistically, but I very strongly knew what I could accept, and what I couldn’t accept at all. But these were *my* answers… I never tell my students “you should do it the same way.” I always explain and tell them my own experience, but they are the ones who need to know what is right for them. I’m not allowed to push any decision on them. It’s their decision to make. Sometimes they ask me, “Sylvia, please tell me, what would you do in my place?” I always say, “No, you have to know what to do, it would be a big mistake for me to influence you.”

    I have to help them develop as strong enough persons. I’ve been guiding them in master classes rather than working regularly with someone. But I keep an eye for the very talented ones. One of my students is now a professional singer in some big theaters but he still needs me to do some handholding. He needs to know that I’m still there for him, mentally praying for him, that I’m somehow always present if he has important performances. For instance, if he sings Verdi’s Requiem, immediately after the end he emails me to say that everything went well. In this profession, maybe the most difficult thing is to be traveling a lot and to be always alone – even if he has his wife with him, mentally he needs to feel very supported by someone who understands the profession, it’s very, very important.


    OL - You yourself had to deal with this sort of publicity early in your career, when you were making debuts at the major international opera houses. You were described as “the new Callas.” The people who gave you this “new Callas” label meant to be complimentary, but they actually created some problems for you, didn’t they?

    SS – Well, it was not my agent who created this nickname. It happened in Aix-en-Provence, when I was singing for the first time in France. It was La Traviata.

    Her Traviata in Aix-en-Provence

    The local press wrote that I was the new Callas. So it was invented by the journalists. Yes, it was a compliment, but somehow it was more like a difficulty, because they always compared me to her, and she is unique. I don’t think it helps any singer when someone says “this is the second Caruso.” It’s not helpful. Maybe for journalism it is interesting, like a title. But for the singers it’s just like they put a hundred kilos on their shoulders, and it is difficult to take them out. I don’t think it helps at all. But I don’t know how, somehow it came up all the time, everywhere I went, also in England, this comparison to her. It’s a compliment but it never helps.


    OL - Maria Callas was still very much alive when other sopranos were being referred to as her successors – and she evidently didn’t like it very much. You were only 25 years old when you had an opportunity to meet her at her home in Paris, and her first words to you were, “So . . . you are the new Callas?” That must have been a very intimidating and uncomfortable moment for you. But I think your visit with her generally went well, didn’t it? Leonard Bernstein had arranged it, and he was also present at least part of the time.

    SS – Yes, that was an interesting story. It all started when I had to sing Aďda at the Viena State Opera. The conductor was Leonard Bernstein. He wanted to change it to Fidelio, because that year he had recorded all the Beethoven symphonies. So he wanted to remain in his universe, he didn’t want to change to Verdi. So the theater proposed to me to sing Leonora instead of Aďda. And I said no. I was not ready to do the role, not even later, my voice wasn’t adapted to do Leonora. It’s such a special and difficult role, one can sing the aria “Ah! Perfido” which is a concert aria by Beethoven, but the role of Leonora itself is so difficult! So I said no, and the Staatsoper was very embarrassed, they told us – “then the two of you meet together and decide what to do.” So I had this meeting between Leonard Bernstein and myself at the Sacher Hotel in Vienna.

    The Sacher Hotel in Vienna

    And he looked at my eyes and said, “you look like the daughter of Maria Callas who was never born.” I mean, he saw in me some sort of – I don’t know, maybe my character, or maybe also physically. And we sang together, I sang with him the duet in Aďda, he was my Radamčs, Leonard Bernstein. [laughs]

    OL – Did he have a good voice?

    SS – [laughs] No, he didn’t. He didn’t sing it well, but he sang it with me. So, he had this idea of organizing a meeting between Maria Callas and I. He asked me if I’d like to meet her, and I said, “of course, she is one of my idols, yes!” But I thought, “well, it’s maybe a dream but it will never become reality.”

    When I was singing in Salzburg at the Festspielhaus, I got a phone call from Bernstein’s secretary, saying “OK, everything has been organized for you to meet Callas, you should come on this date to Paris, Leonard Bernstein will be there, recording, as well.” I was surprised when I saw that he really wanted to see Maria Callas and I together.

    She said she didn’t accept the presence of journalists but said I could go with my husband, at her place. Of course these five hours that I spent at her home marked all my life. And yes, what you mentioned was really the first thing she told me when I walked in. Was it intimidating? True, I was feeling a bit like that. Leonard had recordings, he wasn’t with us all the time, but during a break he came and spent half an hour with us.

    OL - Are there other memories of that meeting that you would be willing to share with us?

    SS - I wrote a lot about that meeting in my books. Yes, there is something similar, after all, with Callas. She was very much a researcher, she was never satisfied with what she did; she always wanted to make it better. She would be unhappy if she couldn’t find artistically a solution for a color, for instance. She was always searching for a new one.

    I mean, she decided to give all her energy to her music, to her singing, and nothing else would exist, and this is the same point I make in my books. At one point she said she was in love and wanted to live that love, and she sacrificed her career for the first time for that big love of hers.

    I’m a little bit like that. My decisions are like Carmen’s, if I love something… My career on stage lasted for 24 years, and it began with Frasquita, and ended with Carmen. [laughs] I was very happy with this arc. You begin as a small character and you end in the same opera singing the title role. So if you compare the decisions and the preparation, how seriously she did it and how devoted she was, there is a point in common between her and me.

    Sylvia's last Carmen in 1995


    OL - You’ve spoken very movingly about what an inspiration Maria Callas was for you, even before you began your career. Were there other singers who you particularly admired, or who you considered role models?

    SS – The example of Maria Callas was not the first one who really made a revolution concerning acting in opera, and became the model of an opera singer. I admired really very much Rosa Ponselle. I believe she was already the type of singer who *thought* on stage. She was a great actress. She was a beautiful-looking woman. For me it is important that I can believe in the roles. If she was Norma, everything was together. She was one of the greatest Normas, with everything in place – the acting part which I consider so important, and the beautiful singing. If someone can sing beautifully a very large part of the opera is done, but it is also theater. So she was the first one I admired very much for her acting.

    There was a singer who marked me very much when I could sing with him – Boris Christoff, the Bulgarian bass. I sang with him Don Carlo at Covent Garden.

    Sylvia with Boris Christoff in Don Carlo

    I started my singing career very young. I was twenty when I sang for the first time on stage. So I was able to sing with that generation – Alfredo Kraus, I was singing with him as well. Giuseppe Taddei was my Scarpia when I sang Tosca for the first time in Italian – I sang the role first in Bulgarian in Sofia – then I did it in Italian in Frankfurt with Giuseppe Taddei, can you imagine it?

    I met that generation! Also the chefs d’orchestre [conductors]; I sang for Nicola Rescigno, De Fabritis, Molinari-Pradelli, Alberto Erede, I was singing with that generation which is part of the greatest ones of the past. But as I was so young, I was able to meet them, and one of them, Boris Christoff, I believe to be one of the greatest, greatest voices of the century, and one of the greatest actors. You couldn’t feel that he was acting at all; his eyes were so expressive, so deeply involved, so emotional. He had such a strong personality, but this was a big example for me: when he was on stage, not a single thought of his would be private. Of course one needs to keep track of the counting and pay attention to the conductor, the partners, everything; it’s part of the trade; but with Boris one would feel that he was not acting, he *was* the character. So he was one of my idols that I loved and admired very much.

    For the phrasing, there was Carlo Bergonzi. I was in Macbeth once and he was in the same production, and I admired so much his beautiful Bel Canto way of singing… Another singer I loved very much to sing with, and I wrote about him in the book as well – maybe next year in Nantes we’ll invite him, we’d like very much to invite him – I sang many Macbeths with him, is Renato Bruson. I loved very much to sing with him, he was a great partner. I believe the duet between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth every time is different, every production is different, but we very much inspired each other – at least he inspired me very much.

    Sylvia with Renato Bruson in Macbeth


    OL – What about current singers; who do you think is good, nowadays?

    SS – I adore Jonas Kaufmann. Recently I gave an interview in French for France Musique; they asked me who I admire the most, and I said Maria Callas and Jonas Kaufmann (laughs). He has everything, he has the style, which I admire in him. If he sings Richard Strauss, it’s Richard Strauss. If he sings Beethoven, it’s Beethoven; if it’s Wagner, it’s Wagner; if it’s Puccini, it’s Puccini. So he has always the perfect style, musically.

    What is very rare in singers is that he does exactly what is in the score. If it’s piano, he sings piano; if it’s forte, he sings forte. Because these days usually everybody sings mezzo-forte, mezzo-forte the whole time, everybody on the same level; maybe someone does an acuto a bit more forte, but that’s it. Verdi sometimes writes five pianos to make sure that at least it is sung a little bit less loud. But singers don’t respect this too much, sometimes because the orchestra is too loud. Singers have been singing louder and louder. But it’s so important… the composers paid so much attention to the colors, it’s important that we singers respect what they wrote. Like in Bartók, for every single bar he writes the tempo and what kind of color he would like. We should respect that, and I see in Jonas Kaufmann the greatest respect of this. And as an actor, we don’t even need to say it, he is *marvelous.* Every time he plays a role, it is different; one never feels that he acts the same way as Don José as he does as Sigmund.

    I also admire Thomas Hampson, in whom I find great qualities of musicality, style, and performing artistry. I adored it when he sang the baritone version of Werther.

    OL – What about current female singers, who do you admire?

    SS – I like very much Mattila, I saw her Arabella in Paris and I thought it was one of the greatest interpretations, both vocally and as an actress. But with the women it is more difficult, I must say. [thinks… sighs…] It’s difficult.

    OL – OK.

    SS – Some productions I love very much, for instance, I loved Massenet’s Manon with Netrebko in Paris. But not every role that she sings is as special. There, I found it very special, very beautiful. It’s like Teresa Stratas in Lulu – I cannot imagine a better Lulu. Sometimes roles are very specific for somebody.


    OL - In your own career, roles in Verdi’s operas were an important part of your repertoire. In fact, you were considered a specialist in his early operas, singing parts such as Lady Macbeth, Odabella, Elvira, Lina, and Giselda. What was it about these roles or this music that particularly appealed to you?

    SS – Well, I sang twelve Verdi roles, which is rare for a singer to sing so many Verdis. My meeting with the early Verdi went through Lamberto Gardelli, the conductor who was very often a guest conductor here at the Budapest Opera, when I was still a member of the opera house. It was his idea to put on stage I Lombardi which was rarely done before.

    Sylvia in I Lombardi

    Covent Garden asked us to bring over the production – they only invited me as a singer, but wanted the same scenery and costumes. Lamberto Gardelli was a specialist in early Verdi. He recorded nearly all of them. It was him who asked me to record Attila which I never sang on stage, and also Ernani, which I also never sang on stage. It was him and Hungaroton who asked me to do so.

    Maybe one of my favorite roles is Lady Macbeth. It was the role that made me think. Every time I discovered a new possibility to act it. Not only at the end when there is the mad scene, but before, I started to discover little signs that she was not well mentally, that there was something weak in her, in spite of all her energy. When something went wrong for her, there were little signs that guide us into the mad scene. Yes, I adore early Verdi, but I also adore Otello, which is one of the latest ones.


    OL - You also sang Mozart’s Donna Elvira and Fiordiligi, and recorded an album of Mozart arias for the Hungaroton label. Many singers, from Birgit Nilsson to Jonas Kaufmann, have described singing Mozart as especially beneficial for their voices – almost like a “tonic” for the voice. Did you also experience this sort of therapeutic effect with Mozart?

    Sylvia as Donna Anna

    SS – I think that Mozart is actually very difficult, not only technically, but because of the style. If it is healthy for the voice or not, I cannot answer, but I will say that if someone is able to sing Mozart, it’s one of the greatest pleasures one can have. I had the fortune of singing Donna Elvira with Sir Georg Solti in the DECCA recording. He let me chose between roles, because on stage I used to only sing Donna Anna. I sang Fiordiligi, and La Contessa. And in recording I sang part of Elettra of Idomeneo – two arias I sang, and the role is not much more. I recorded also Mozart concert arias; it’s one of my favorite recordings with Hungaroton.

    I believe that Mozart is very, very, very special, but I believe that there is another composer whose repertory is very good for the voice and also for the artistic development: it’s Glück. I learned so much from singing Alceste! Another one I adore is Cherubini. There you can find a little bit the difficulties that Mozart give you, but there is a lot of flexibility for the voice, and the acting part is good too, like the Medea that I recorded with Gardelli for Hungaroton. Vocally it is as difficult as Mozart, but it is such an interesting character to play, Medea…

    So it is great for a singer to be able to sing Mozart – some Wagner singers can’t – but then you have someone like Kaufmann who can be Pamino and Sigmund at the same time! Singers should learn different styles if their voices can take them, because having that flexibility helps for other roles as well.


    OL - For many years, Hungaroton was a major recording company and was able to draw on the great talent at the Hungarian State Opera. One thinks of Éva Marton, Robert Ilosfalvy, Sólyom-Nagy Sándor, Laszlo Polgar, Veronika Kincses, and so many other outstanding Hungarian singers. You must have many wonderful memories of that opera house.

    SS – Yes, even if I was just a member for seven years of the Hungarian Opera Company… After that I was a free-lancer because I was always traveling for ten months every year so I couldn’t stay anymore as a member of the opera house. But for many years I returned to sing for two or three performances, very often around Christmas time, when I was back to see my parents here in Budapest. This opera house is really one of the greatest opera houses of the world, and we had two theaters together: Erkel Theatre, and the Opera. On Sundays we had four performances per day!

    OL – Four? Oh my God!

    SS – Yes, we had matinees for children and young people, and evening performances in both theaters, it was really great. And I remember when I was very young, and I was in the office of one of the chief conductors, and Bayreuth called him for advice because they knew that we had the entire Ring. It was very rare at the time that an opera house was able to play the entire Ring. So Bayreuth asked for help - if we could lend them singers quickly, because they knew we had at least two Brünnhildes (laughs). Sólyom-Nagy Sándor, I sang with him very often, I sang in Hungary nearly all the Toscas with him, he is a very great singer, until now he sings very well.

    In Meistersingers with Sólyom-Nagy Sándor

    After a certain time I had problems with the new direction of the opera house and they didn’t invite me anymore. In my heart I belong still here, a little bit, because that was where I started my career, that was the music academy where I learned. Thanks to them I could become who I became. Even if sometimes they don’t like me so much, the public still loves me very much. Still, last year I did twenty concerts here in Hungary over two months, and I saw how much the public did not forget me and how thankful they were that I was back.


    OL - At one point you created your own recording company -- Cant-Art. What can you tell us about that experience?

    SS – Yes, the Cant-Art. Well, when Hungaroton ran into difficulties, I still wanted to have new recordings, so I created this Cant-Art. I did only three recordings, because it is very expensive to pay the orchestra and so on, and it was already the period when sales were not so good – the Internet started, and people were not buying the physical recordings so much, so financially it was awfully difficult to make it. But I was very happy that I was able to make a recording of arias from Rossini’s Guillaume Tell, things like that, and also a whole Liszt recital, and some Schubert ballades, which were very rarely recorded. But after that I couldn’t produce more. I did do a fourth one with Cant-Art, with Richard Strauss orchestra songs.

    OL – But it was nice to be able to record repertoire that wasn’t done by big commercial companies, and with your own company you could choose your repertoire, right?

    SS – Yes, yes. Still I would love to have continued, and to have found a sponsor for it, because my dream was to do the complete Liszt. Still now I sing Liszt songs, and I know all of them. I feel a little bit like an ambassador of our music. For Bartók and for Liszt I would like to make sure people know everything from them, so I still include them everywhere, for example in my recitals in Tokyo and Rome, half of the program had Liszt songs.


    OL – And what about Ligeti? I love his opera Le Grand Macabre. How do you feel about contemporary opera?

    SS – I did some of them. Durkó is a contemporary Hungarian composer, and I sang the mother in the world premiere of his Mózes. It was a very interesting opera. There is another Hungarian composer who is still alive, Szokolay, and I sang Delila in his opera Sámson.

    As Delila in Budapest

    So, I did it, and also other works that are not operas but were created for voice. One of my first recordings was Messiaen, Cinq Rechants. Yes, I like it, but sometimes I feel it’s dangerous for the singers, because many of them don’t think what this instrument [points to her throat] needs.

    OL – They don’t really write for the voice.

    SS – They think of the voice as sounds and effects, not really knowing the instrument, I believe, so it is sometimes dangerous.


    Sylvia Sass as Judit

    OL - I particularly love your DVD of Bluebeard’s Castle with Sir Georg Solti. Any memories from that recording you’d like to share with us?

    SS – Yes, the Bluebeard’s Castle is one of my most beautiful memories. The story of how I met Sir Georg Solti is that I was recording my first recital with DECCA with Lamberto Gardelli, and I was looking at what artists were exclusive with DECCA, and there was the picture of Sir Georg Solti. And I looked at him, and said to the engineers “ah, how much I would love to record with him Bluebeard’s Castle of Bartók!” And the next day he walks into the studio, and says “You are the little girl who would like to record with me?” I said, “Yes, it’s me.” He said, “OK, let’s do it!” It was like a fairy tale!

    So yes, this recording is one of the most cherished of my life, because I admired him, I believe he was one of the greatest conductors of the 20th century, and he was so precise, had so much energy… they called him “the fastest baton” and it was true! I was very touched when I got to the fifth door, and heard that great orchestra playing with him; it’s Hungarian music, and I felt in that moment “my God, how beautiful it is to be an opera singer!”

    I’m proud to say that they wanted to do the recording without the prologue, when a man in close-up has to say… [she does the declamation in Hungarian]; it’s not singing, and they wanted to leave it out, and it was me who insisted to keep it, because in other recordings there isn’t this prologue, and Bartók should be very angry, because in that prologue there is the answer, the key to the opera. It’s the main point, it explains why he created this opera.

    So we recorded the entire opera in London, and when everything was finished a Hungarian actor came to the DECCA studio in Vienna and recorded the text of the prologue. So this was one of the first complete recordings of Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle, and I was very, very happy that we did it how it was written.

    Another thing I’m very proud of is that next year in March, in the Hungarian Academy in Rome, I’ll be presenting a master class on Bluebeard’s Castle. An American singer and an Italian singer will learn the parts in Hungarian, and a couple of Hungarian singers will sing as well. And then we will present the film that you mentioned. So it will be celebrating Bartók in Rome.

    And so, with these young singers who have no problem with the language, I’ll like to transmit everything that I learned from Sir Georg Solti in the recording. This is my job, this is what I’ve put together in my 41 years of career, and I want to give it to them.

    OL – Let’s talk a little more about Bluebeard’s Castle. You said that the prologue has the point of why the opera was written, and you also mentioned that you think a lot of the psychology of Judit. Would you please comment on these two points?

    SS – This is the same point that I mentioned in my third book – where is reality? Because in the text there is this question: Where is the theater? Is it outside, or inside of us? If you really understand this question you realize that it is not a question of seven doors that you have to open. Everything is a psychological drama which happens inside the heads of these two people who want to know each other. When they discover all the parts of the other person, some of these parts are frightening.

    Because we say “I love you” without really knowing the loved person. And when you discover this personality in the fifth door, and also the blood and all the sacrifices, you realize that this person doesn’t only have bright parts. There are also hidden things that are difficult to understand and you cannot share with the other person.

    So then you arrive to the sixth door and there is this lake of tears. There is the point when she feels that she is losing something, that she cannot understand her husband. She is not able to do so.

    Yes, I was very much analyzing this development between these two characters. This castle becomes more and more a dark region. This couple could have something beautiful together, but the more they know each other, the darker it all becomes. She is not able to follow through with her intention of possessing him. So she becomes hysterical in the seventh door, she says “I know what is going on, you killed all of them, you need to open this door.” And he keeps saying, “my castle won’t have more light if you open it; be careful, please, don’t do it.” She is insisting, insisting until she is faced with this old love that you need to live with, that you can’t throw out. OK, one can say today “I love you” but the other loves in his life that he has lived are *not* inexistent. And then she discovers that they are all alive.

    Oh, I get so mad when I see this opera staged in a way that people take this opening of the doors literally; this is so far from the meaning of the opera! I made a plan to direct this opera as well. I already have my drawings – because you know that I paint – so I have already the plans in my head, maybe one day I’ll have a chance to put my ideas on stage.

    OL - What about your Il Trittico DVD with Gianandrea Gavazzeni?

    SS – That one was not a film; it was a theatrical opera performance that was filmed. It was at La Scala, and I sang Il Tabarro. The Bluebeard’s Castle we made in studio as a film, it was a different system.

    Il Tabarro at La Scala


    OL - Hungary has a very rich musical history, including opera. Unfortunately, few of these operas are performed on a regular basis – Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle and Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre are probably the two most familiar to opera-goers in other European countries and the Americas. But there are many others: Ferenc Erkel’s Hunyadi László and Bánk Bán; Zoltán Kodály’s Háry János; and Liszt’s Don Sanche, for example. Which operas by Hungarian composers are your personal favorites?

    SS – Well, I recorded Erkel’s Hunyadi László, Hungaroton recorded it with me. I believe this opera could be one the greatest to play all over the world, but there comes again the problem of language, which is quite difficult. Somehow for Bartók it is more possible; for instance I believe that one of the greatest recordings of Bluebeard’s Castle is the one with Christa Ludwig and Walter Berry [Editor’s note: it’s the 1965 studio recording from DECCA with István Kertész conducting the London Symphony Orchestra], they are so great in this recording, so if someone takes the time to learn the language, the language won’t be a barrier.

    If you see the operas by Janáček , or Rusalka, they are also very difficult but people are learning them, so… I believe that it’s a matter of finding someone who really wants to present these operas. Because Erkel’s opera, it’s just like Carlos Gomes; such great quality music, but unfortunately rarely produced outside of their own countries. I love very much Kodály’s opera Székelyfonó [The Spinning Room], I sang a little part in it. I believe it’s a beautiful opera, I have the plan of presenting it in another country; this is a beautiful opera as well.

    OL - Few people also realize that Hungary has produced notable operetta composers beyond Franz Lehár, Emmerich Kálmán, and Sigmund Romberg. There were Victor Jacobi, Jenó Huszka, Pongrác Kacsoh, and Mihály Eismann, to name a few. Why do you think they never achieved the popularity outside of their native country that Lehár, Kálmán, and Romberg did?

    SS – I recorded also an album with operetta songs. I like very much Lehár and Kálmán. Well, the others, I don’t know why they didn’t become famous. Huszka is very, very good, really. I recorded one of his works for television. Maybe somebody will discover them.


    OL - How is opera doing in Hungary these days? We hear of crises in Italy; we’ve just interviewed a Czech singer who told us that it is in crisis in the Czech Republic as well. What about here?

    SS – I believe that the crisis is everywhere, and it is much more a financial crisis than a crisis of the opera houses. What I think they should do is co-productions, because to put an opera on stage, the most expensive part is the scenery and the costumes, and if a theater can share these things – for instance if Bologna can travel to other Italian houses that are about the same size and divide the costs of the staging between them, I believe that this is one way to manage.

    Another thing they could do is take the operas that are rarely performed, and at least perform them in concert version. At least we will be able to hear them. I don’t think that operas are best heard in recording. The opera houses should give opportunities for young singers who are not very experienced on stage yet, to sing rarely performed operas in concert version.

    Well unfortunately the Hungarian Opera is not a stagione company, it’s like the Staatsoper in Vienna, the singers are members of the opera house, and now they had to say arrivederci to more than 30 people, they just cannot afford to keep them.

    So it’s a very, very difficult period, and it is difficult to find enough jobs, because we have many talented people, and we have only two or three big theaters in Hungary. There are a few other theaters that do theatrical plays and opera together. Many talented Hungarian singers need to become members of a German company if they want something stable. If someone is really great, then they’ll be able to sing in theaters like La Scala, but it is very difficult to make it, these days.

    OL - You are a Grande Dame of opera, with 41 years of an illustrious career, and it is an honor for us to interview you, and a rare opportunity.

    SS – Thank you very much.


    OL - So, let’s take advantage of your vast experience, and ask you, beyond how opera is doing in Hungary, what do you think of the operatic environment in the world today, in the 21st century, the era of high definition, with singers who look good but maybe don’t sing as well as the great singers of the past.

    SS – I believe that this tendency to televise opera and put it in cinemas is great, it’s a way to reach new publics, and I am very in favor of it. We can see the singers in close-ups, which you can’t do if you are sitting in an opera house. I think it is totally different, but it makes it accessible to people who otherwise would not be able to go to the Metropolitan to see live opera, so I think it is a very good idea.

    What I miss today is a little bit of style. And this is what I write in my book, I’d like to transmit a bit the knowledge that I got. I’ll tell you an example. A conductor with whom I worked a lot was Lamberto Gardelli, who was a student of Tullio Serafin, who worked together with Toscanini. Toscanini was in the orchestra when Verdi was conducting his operas. So, they can transmit this tradition.

    When I’m listening to Magda Olivero singing Adriana Lecouvreur, the composer Cilea could ask her for things, could transmit to her the knowledge. One of my teachers at the academy was a conductor, and he learned at Santa Cecilia from Tullio Serafin. When he taught me my Traviata, I was able to learn all that Serafim used to ask for. So when I sang La Traviata for the first time in Sofia in a competition, I was so well prepared, because my teacher was able to transmit to me all this tradition.

    La Traviata in Sofia

    What I miss a bit today is this style. The Bel Canto style is slowly disappearing, even in Italy. When I give master classes, I try to transmit these things to my colleagues. Maybe a conductor will say, “no, I don’t want this coloratura” – OK, but at least they know it.

    When I listen to old recordings by Bergonzi or Tebaldi, sometimes I feel a much deeper presentation with more sense. If you listen to Callas doing Lucia… there are singers today doing beautiful jobs with Lucia but I don’t feel such musical depth. I don’t feel it. So I miss something. And the singers now don’t know it any longer. Thanks to YouTube they can listen to the singers of the past, this is not bad, but it’s like I told you before about contemporary composers: if they forget the base, I don’t think that what they create will stay alive, in the long term. For that, I admire Britten because you can still hear the base, there.

    OL – Yes, those musical interludes in Peter Grimes are so melodious, even if the opera is sung in declamatory style! I have goose bumps when I think of those interludes.

    SS – Yes, that’s what I miss, today. I don’t want to criticize. I like to say good things about productions and singers. I don’t like to criticize. But recently I saw a Don Giovanni, and I thought, “my Goodness!” When I was young, great conductors would stop me if I sang this way. They wouldn’t allow me to do what these singers are doing now, in terms of style. I miss that severity.


    OL - On a totally different subject, you are also a talented painter. You’ve shown your work at more than 50 exhibitions, and Hungarian television filmed a special program on your artworks. When did you begin painting? Did you have a teacher, or were you self-taught?

    SS – Yes, I started to paint when I was 25 years old. I was singing at the Hamburg Staatsoper, Cosě fan tutte, I was very lonely, I didn’t like the atmosphere at all, and the city was so cold. Then I saw in a store window a box with all the important material for oil painting, so I bought it and I started to paint a picture, and I realized that what was in my imagination, I could achieve. So in an autodidact way I started to learn painting. It’s been more than 50 exhibitions… last year I had an exhibition of my drawings.

    Exhibition in Paris

    My first exhibition was in Hungary, but I’ve also had exhibitions in Paris, in Austria, and just recently in Rome. Once I started, I couldn’t stop.

    OL - Your paintings are beautiful! How would you describe your painting style?

    [See several of her outstanding paintings in this photo gallery by clicking HERE]

    SS – Well, I had four painters whom I admired very much. Rembrandt, Turner, Chagall, and Cézanne. So when you see my style you see everything I learned from them, but now I believe that I have created my own style. What is very important for me is the freedom that Chagall taught me. I’m very often painting angels. Painting gives me freedom, that’s why I love to paint; it’s for me a form of meditation.

    OL - You were granted in 2007 the Hungarian Cross of the Order of Merit. Are you satisfied with the recognition you got in your home country?

    SS – Yes, of course, every recognition makes one feel valued, but of course you shouldn’t wait for it. If you are given recognition, you’re happy, but if they don’t give it to you, it should not be a problem at all. What I feel is beautiful is that nearly in every country I had a nice experience like that. When I was the president of the jury in the Maria Callas Competition in Săo Paulo, the Parliament gave me a beautiful plate, saying “thank you for your career, for what you have given to us.” I was in Santiago de Chile; the city of Santiago gave me a gold plate thanking me as well; I was there for the Luis Sigall Competition in Vińa del Mar.

    In my 40th anniversary of my career last year I got the most poetic recognition I’ve received in my life. My film of La Traviata was shown in Nantes, and the City of Nantes named after me a camellia, which now is the Sylvia Sass Camellia. I have the plant, of course, and I said in an interview that if someone had named a star after me, I would not be as happy, because this camellia I can touch and it is such a beautiful flower, and of course Violetta was La Dame aux Camélias, so it has such a profound meaning for me; I was really touched.

    OL – Thank you Ms. Sass for this wonderful interview.

    SS – My pleasure.






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    Comments 3 Comments
    1. Schigolch's Avatar
      Schigolch -
      Long, complete and interesting interview.

      I would like to read “A Belső Hang”, but unfortunately it seems there is only the Hungarian original version, and I can't read this language.
    1. Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
      Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva) -
      Quote Originally Posted by Schigolch View Post
      Long, complete and interesting interview.

      I would like to read “A Belső Hang”, but unfortunately it seems there is only the Hungarian original version, and I can't read this language.
      The other two do seem to exist in French and Italian, although it was not clear to me whether or not she has already published the Italian version. I think she has - she quoted its title. But it may be still be in press.

      Well, we can make the suggestion to her, that she should translate her first book as well.
    1. Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
      Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva) -
      Ms. Sass has sent in a few corrections secondary to misunderstandings (the voice recording was done in a rather noisy environment) and they have been implemented. One important thing for her is that Sir Georg Solti wasn't against recording the prologue to Bluebeard's Castle (it's been fixed); plus some other minor corrections. She also wanted to add that she admires very much Thomas Hampson, so this has been included in the same answer where she talks about Jonas Kaufmann. The other painter who influenced her was Turner.

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