I met Alessandra Marc on a hot day in July; she was in town shopping for a sublet apartment for her stay in New York in the fall, when she returns to the Metropolitan Opera for a revival of Turandot. Apologizing for the lack of any food in the room (part of her diet), this unaffected diva offered me a glass of spring water, settled into a chair, and began to speak in an almost girlish voice of her career, old friends, and new beginnings.
ALESSANDRA MARC: Yeah, in a manner of speaking. Why not?
So, you go to the opera a lot?
Not in that respect, no. I do listen to recordings. Rosa Ponselle was one of the first soprano recordings I listened to quite a lot during my study period, early on. Joan Sutherland. Maria Callas, of course. And then I discovered Leontyne, which was a whole new world to me then. So perhaps I don't qualify as a queen, though. Maybe just a princess. Just one notch lower.
It's not the most usual idea in the world, to be an opera singer. I mean, most people aren't opera singers. Where did this idea come from?
You know, that's a good question. And if you have the answer, I sure would appreciate knowing it. Because -- as has been written about me, probably, and I've spoken about it in interviews before -- my inclination has always been, and continues to be, the blues, rock, R&B, pop thing. That's primarily the music I listen to in my free time. I remember singing Linda Ronstadt songs, singing along with The Beatles, and thinking: "Wow, this is fabulous. I can relate to this." Then I started studying music seriously, discovered I had this instrument, this voice. Then I started exposing myself to... other singers. And it's only then that I realized: Gee, I think I could do that.
Do you have an experience that converted you to opera?
I would have to say probably hearing the Leontyne Price recording of Aegyptische Helena. Blew me out of the water when I heard that. A friend of mine, Michael Dash, who's not with us anymore, turned me onto that a long, long time ago. He's also from the Maryland, Virginia area. And I would say that that turned me around. That and my voice teacher at the time, and her influence. Marilyn Cotlow -- my first teacher and my first mother-in-law! I've always been a really instinctual singer, and she made me very aware of my good natural instinct. But she was a fabulous coloratura soprano, and so that was what she gave me -- was the training that she'd received as a coloratura.
Who are you working with now?
Bill Schuman. We've been friends a long time, like fifteen years by now. And I haven't worked with him as a voice teacher until now. And he's grown and matured into a really wonderful teacher -- with great ears, good intelligence. And I haven't studied with anyone in over ten years.
So you're working on technical things as well as repertoire.
Refining, you know. I'm an at age now, and the repertoire that I've started doing a little bit of now, along with the physical changes that are natural. My voice has changed. And after ten years of not having any regimented vocal studies -- or set of ears that I could trust -- I think probably there were a few little bad habits that were beginning to creep in, that I was aware of.
If you're not singing opera-- I mean, when you're just like singing around the house, or you're singing in the shower .. are you singing Aegyptische Helena Or are you singing --?
These days it's Turandot. I love the role. I love everything about it; I love to sing it. I'd never get bored with it. Fabulous clothes. High drama -- love the high drama. And I love it that she arrives in the middle of the second act. I think it's fabulous. Great entrance.
Could you talk a little bit about the early part of your career?.
Yeah. The very beginnings? I started private voice study my last year of high school -- in Baltimore, privately, a half hour a week. She -- the teacher, Jean Peterson, at the time -- gave me some very easy vocalise; gave me the Countess's aria to sing in the studio. Didn't harm me, you know? Gave me some good basic ideas. Then I went to University of Maryland as a performing arts major, and there I felt really out of place. Music was my major, singing. We had one voice lesson a week -- which I thought was not adequate, at that point. Wasn't really happy there. Went to a local audition for an opera company there, Prince George's Civic Opera. Marilyn Cotlow heard me and she came to me afterwards and introduced herself and said: Do you have any idea what kind of talent you possess?
And I said: Well, I think, you know, I'm a soprano, and at the university they tell me I'll sing Mimi one day, maybe -- you know, when I'm really grown up. And she just let this huge laugh rip, and a bunch of four-letter words. And I thought: Here's this woman old enough to me my mom, and she's -- well, she's just full out, you know? And I love her! And she recognized instantly what I had. She said: Look, you won't need a degree. Come study with me -- I'll teach you for free. And I did. I continued going to university for a while, but studied privately with her. Eventually, I left the university with no degree -- 50 or 60 credits shy of my degree -- to study in a more concentrated fashion with her. I did that for a few years.
Then I entered the Met competition the first time. Jerome Hines said: "You know what? You're something! But I'm not going to advance you, because I want to protect you from New York. Come back in two years. Here's a little bit of money. Go study, come back in two years." And so I did. Then, in the interim, I met David Shiffman, who would be my first manager. I would come up to New York and sleep on Bill Schuman's floor, in those days, and do some auditions here. I wound up being a winner in the Met competition that year. And that's when, in the midst of all that, the Met competition, is when I made my name change.
Now your name before was --?
Judith Borden. Already people were making a mistake. They'd say: Uh, Judith Blegen? No. Judith Raskin? No. And so I thought: I don't feel like I'm a Judy anyway, so why not change it? Sometimes the name you're given just isn't you. So for a year, prior to that Met competition, I had already been thinking about different names. I had always felt that if I were to be a mother and have a daughter, Alessandra would be her name. And so I thought: Hmm. I kind of like "Alessandra," actually. "Alessandra." And then I had to choose a last name. Since the first was long, the last should be short. Easy to pronounce, no matter what country I'm in. Easy to spell. "Marc" seemed to go well with "Alessandra," so Alessandra Marc was born. So in the middle of the competition, when I knew then that I was going to proceed to the finals, I called the offices of the National Council. I said: Uh, hello, this is Judy Borden. Can you please refer to me as Alessandra Marc from now on? I must say they were very wonderful and accommodating. I have to be grateful that they did that, because I realized that this would be my first New York exposure to the critics. If I wanted to change my name, it would lessen the confusion if I could manage to do it at that point.
So you started singing around, or --?
Gerry Schwartz gave me my first break in New York, at the Waterloo Festival. Das Liebesverbot I sang the second soprano in that. It got a lot of public attention, because I think it was a premiere of the piece. And then he hired me for a couple of other things at Mostly Mozart Festival: the version of Mozart's Idomeneo reorchestrated by Richard Strauss, and then the Wagner reworking of Iphigenia in Aulis. So I was slowly becoming the queen of oddball repertoire! That led, I think, to an offer to do Friedenstag, in Santa Fe -- which was a ball-buster of a part, very demanding. John Crosby wanted me for it. As it turned out, that, too, was a premiere of that opera in this country -- so that got a lot of attention in the press. That was a really wonderful experience, actually my stage debut in a major opera. Though prior to that, I had sung in the chorus of Washington Opera for three or four years, and I did some small parts there: Giannetta in Elixir of Love; Berta in The Barber of Seville; and Lady in Waiting in Macbeth.
You certainly have had a lot of CDs in release the last couple of months -- the Salome final scene, the Lulu suite, and my favorite, the Dallas concert. I adore your singing of the Barber Cleopatra aria.
That's a piece I've adored since hearing Leontyne sing it. Believe it or not, the final program for the Dallas CD was decided on only a few weeks before the concert dates. It was the first time I'd sung the aria. It's so sexy! I'd love to record an entire Barber CD someday.
We know you're coming back to the Met to do Turandot.
And after that?
I'm at La Scala this season, with Turandot, and then Washington Opera, again with Turandot. As far as other staged operas, there's a Ring Cycle in Mexico City we are discussing. Brunnhilde, this time, instead of Sieglinde. I sang the Walkure Brunnhilde in concert, last year in Rome, with Sinopoli.
Oh, yes, I was in Rome about a month after that concert -- one of the few events that season for the Rome Opera that actually took place, I think.
That opera company's
gone through a lot. You know the situation there was always fraught
with tension in rehearsals. Alan Titus was singing -- was it his first
Wotan? And Sinopoli was having these nightmarish political things
going on with the orchestra, and everything like that. So it wasn't
an ideal situation by any means, but it was a chance to sing the part.
Now, in Mexico City they're planning to do one of the operas per year.
So, you see, I'm looking at the
A lot of us collect pirate recordings, pirate tapes and so forth. Just honestly, how do you feel about that being out there?
Terrific. I don't mind.
Do you get your own tapes, or do you care to listen to yourself?
I always try to get tapes of my performances, always -- but I do not listen to them. I put them aside. One of these days I'll listen to them, maybe when I'm no longer singing; or together with my daughter, when she's older, or something. But I want to have them as an archive. I love it that there are recordings of live performances of mine available. I called a dealer who had a catalog of several my performances here in New York and I asked, "Well, are you going to send me some copies of my own things?" And he obliged, which was really nice. Otherwise, these things would be lost forever and ever.
Now, what's the dumbest thing you've ever done onstage?
What have you heard that I've done onstage? Help me remember here.
Oh, you know, forgetting props; petticoats falling off. Catherine Malfitano says the grand drape hit her in the eye and knocked her contact lens out.
I don't have a good story like that. I don't think I've been onstage enough. Probably in my future.
You mentioned that you're working on losing some weight. Would you care to talk about that?
Sure, sure. It's been spoken about quite publicly for most of my career. It's something I look forward to putting in the past, and I'm on the verge of doing that. I'm really happy. I feel really great. I've dropped 48 pounds as of now, and it's going to continue. I don't know how thin I'll be -- I just want to be happy. And, most important, I want to be all that I can be, which hasn't been possible until now -- because I haven't been allowed to use my gift on the stage, my talent, because of the weight. It's hindered me. And I'm pissed. Is anyone aware that at this moment in an important opera house in Europe the stage director has been looking and looking for someone to sing Turandot who looks like a fifteen year old virgin? Needless to say they're still looking! These are the harsh realities confronting artists like myself!
But now, you're being proactive about it?
Precisely, precisely. I would say that most of the people who love what I do, when they hear me in concert, are horribly perplexed when I'm honest with them. I tell them, quite frankly: "Well, I'd love to be doing more opera. I love the stage. But it's not up to me." And they say, "We only care about the voice, and there's no one who sings the way you do, and the opera world needs you." I also have been forwarded the numerous online debates about the matter of my vocal state of health and repertoire choices! Oh my! I'm flattered so many of you care as much as you do, really. So now I can say, "Don't give up hope." I'm here for the long haul. I'm a survivor, and I'm born to do this. It's my fate, it's my destiny -- and I will do everything I can to realize it.
Now, how are you dieting? Now, I want the nuts and bolts, because I'm an eternal dieter myself.
Yeah. Well, I'm under the care of a doctor. The diet is very low carbohydrate, high protein; a lot of vitamins; a little bit of exercise; and conviction -- you know?
Are you noticing any changes in the quality of the voice or the technique?
The only thing that I have noticed so far is the support mechanism, here. Different, and maybe a little bit weakened. So that's something I'm working on, why I'm coming to New York on a regular basis now, to maintain and build stamina as I'm losing the weight.
So we're coming to a point where they're not going to be saying: No, we don't want to use you because you're heavy. So then, after you have them in the palm of your hand and you have more say in what roles you can do, what would you be interested in doing?
I'd love to sing Tosca and Manon Lescaut; I would love to sing Forza again, Don Carlo. Elisabeth in Tannhäuser. Rosenkavalier. And Desdemona, that's a beautiful part, stunning. Gorgeous music. I mean, I'm not a full-blown dramatic soprano. I never have been -- probably will never be. That's one reason I think that my approach to singing Turandot is different from just about everybody else who sings it. To put it simply, I actually sing a lot of the role, where some other people just get through it. And I see her as a very feminine character. Otherwise the story would be so absurd, it wouldn't be believable. That she has to have some human, feminine quality for Calaf to be even slightly aroused. I mean, a complete frigid little ice princess -- who wants that? And, besides, I think have a very sensual sound in my voice, which lends itself to a softer, more feminine interpretation, which I think is unusual, and certainly interesting.