Interview with Canadian Mezzo-Soprano, Jean Stilwell, and pianist, Patti Loach

She uses them to affect those around her: Don
JosÈ, her audience, and even the music itself. Since its inception,
Bizetís Carmen has remained an operatic staple, a birthmark in the
standard repertoire, and since then mezzo-sopranos have fought to make the
role of ìLa CarmenÁitaî their own. But what of a tall, stunning,
blisteringly seductive, and un-conventional Carmen? One who exudes more sex
appeal by simply walking on-stage than so many other mezzos who have tried to
seduce us as the vixen of Seville? In the mid-nineties, just such a
singing-actress mesmerized her audience in Keith Warnerís production of
Carmen for Opera Hamilton.

Canadian mezzo-soprano, Jean Stilwell, is internationally renowned for her
portrayal of Carmen, and not simply because of her lush dark, merlot-like
mezzo. Rather, the intoxicating combination of musicality, bodily instinct,
and vibrancy on-stage, give Stilwell the label of a ìsinging-actressî of
the dramatic likes of Callas. By embedding herself deeply within the heart of
her character, Stilwell pulses with an air of verit‡ and
complexity. Not surprisingly, her dangerous Carmen has been seen in
conjunction with the Buxton Festival, New York City Opera, and Welsh National
Opera, to name but a few. Possessing a wonderfully distinct and powerful
tinta colorato, that is required of the more dramatic mezzo
repertoire, she has also performed the roles of Amneris in Verdiís
Aida and La Principess Eboli in his Don Carlos, as well as
many others. Multi-faceted and equally at home on the concert stage, Stilwell
is no stranger to these dangerous roles. Through them, she continues to
enthral her listeners and retains dedicated fans on several continents.

Although Jean has been acclaimed for a significant number of other roles,
it is with Carmen that she is undeniably connected, and rightly so. What is
ever more fascinating about Jean Stilwell is the underlying and deeply rooted
understanding that Carmen and she are more connected than we think they are;
so much so, that one might say that Jean ìisî Carmen, but Carmen is also
Jean. For anyone who has had the pleasure of seeing Jean as Carmen, it would
not be surprising to know that their blood flows in identical veins. They are
so connected that Jean, along with the invaluable creativity and artistry of
Canadian pianist, Patti Loach, has given rise to ìCarmen Un-Zipped,î an
opera-singer meets cabaret in a semi-autobiographical and deliciously
realistic production where Jean exposes herself as much more than a striking,
dark-haired diva with a few tattoos. She displays the beauty of the human
heart and the strength of will one must possess in order to endure and
survive the complexities of love, loss, and life.

Pianist, Patti Loach
Pianist, Patti Loach

Patti Loach has been musically inclined since a very young age and studied
piano at the Royal Conservatory of Music and later at the University of
Toronto. A multi-faceted musician, her interests are broad and diverse, from
opera to cabaret, to tangos and jazz, and one cannot forget
gorgonzola and vino rossoÖspecifically Wolf Blass
Yellow Label
; two little luxuries of life that helped to merge a
friendship that would become an invaluable musical partnership. The
friendship Patti forged with Jean Stilwell gave rise to this eclectic,
invigorating, and refreshing production that has caused an artistic stir and
the possibility of employing a new type of genre, where the operatic voice
and music is used for expressive dramatic purposes other than those in which
they were meant to be performed. ìCarmen Un-Zippedî is the juxtaposition
of life and art, a concept that artists and historians have attempted merge
for millennia.

Today, I have the distinct pleasure of meeting with Jean Stilwell and
Patti Loach to discuss the conception of their production, to talk about
opera, and to delve further into ways that opera, a genre that has been
seemingly associated with the upper-echelon of society, can be brought to the
masses in an uncomplicated and more accessible way. Before the interview
began, I was delighted to have been witness to a moving and quite effective
performance of ìNe me quitte pasî with Jean, Patti, and Pattiís
husband, trumpeter John Loach. The beautiful blend and emotional performance
created the kind of passionate interplay that is necessary between musicians
and everything was still for that few moments.

Mary-Lou: ìJean, Patti, thank you for speaking with me today.î

Jean: ìOur pleasure.î

Mary-Lou: ìIíd like to start with you, Jean. Every musician or singer
has an interesting background; something or someone who ultimately influences
his or her plummet into this fantastically difficult and rewarding field.
Tell us, who your influences were, personal or professional. Who was the
catalyst behind the artistry of Jean Stilwell?î

Jean: ìMy mum, Margaret Stilwell. She was a singer and she was a
pianist. You know as Patti says in the dialogue to ìCarmen Un-Zipped,î my
father was an organist and a pianist and we had music going on around us
24/7. It was on all the time. You know, I would just watch her sing and I
thought she was very, very beautiful. I thought she had the most perfect
nose, you know (laughing). She was gorgeous and I loved watching her, and I
was proud of her. I loved the colour of her voice. It was warm. There was no

Patti: ìIt was described as creamy.î

Jean: ìYes, it was very creamy, very loving. Also, she was extremely
humble. She would wear the latest fashions but I never ever knew that she was
nervous. She would keep everything inside and she would just be a consummate
professional every time, even when she was sick. I knew that she had the
goods to have a professional career and she was offered that by Sir Ernest
McMillan who was conducting the Toronto Symphony. He wanted to take her to
London, England, but he took her to Carnegie Hall where she sang the St.
Matthewís Passion with the Toronto Symphony. She could have had that kind
of career, but it was after the war and the priority was to have a family,
you know, and so she had three kids and five-gazillion jobs: sang with the
Festival Singers of Canada and had a church job. Her mother told her, ìJust
in case your music career doesnít work, then youíve gotta learn
something, a skill.î She became a comptometer operator, which was a
glorified adding machine.î

Jean: ìI rarely saw her and when I did see her, I felt so lucky and she
just seemed beautiful to me, until I got wise (laughing), you know, and then
you grow up and see all the crazy things that make up a person. But yes, she
was definitely my inspiration. My father, also, was a very fine organist, but
he played the piano like an organist and we did not have a musical
relationship. I mean we did in that he played a lot of Copland and Stravinsky
and he played a lot of Bach and Handel all the time. On Sunday afternoons he
would play Haydn and I hate HaydnÖ..

Patti: ìWell, you have to wonder what came first. Did you hate Haydn
because you just didnít want to live with his music?î

Jean: ìProbably, but actually I think I find Haydn boring. I loved when
he would play things like the William Tell Overture and weíd all get on the
couch and bounce around (Jean humming the overture and
demonstrating)Öweíd have just a riot when we were kids but, really I
would say that it was my mother that was my inspiration.î

Mary-Lou: ìAnd what of her, do you think, when you walk out on a stage,
what of her do you take with you?î

Jean: ìHer spirit. There is no question about it. She is definitely a
part of me.î

Mary-Lou: ìThatís wonderful, you know.î

Jean: ìWhen I was growing up and was in my teens, I had no idea who I
was and just did all sorts of crazy things. You try to find a personality,
and our relationship was symbiotic, as most mother/daughter relationships
are, because my mother really did live through me, as well. So, that was
extremely difficult and I didnít know who I was and it took me a long time
to find out; a very late bloomer consequently. I also have a personality and
spirit that is quite distinct from my motherís but I know that sheís
very, very present.

Patti: ìYou should tell the story about when your mother was doing vocal
warm-ups on the piano bench and you sang them back.î

Jean: ìI was about 18 years old and studying social work at Ryerson, and
I wasnít studying voice but pianoÖ.Lord knows whyÖ.and she said,
ìJean, come here! Come here and sing this for me.î She pulled out some
Schubert. I was in the church choir with he,r and I would just sing along and
I would marvel at how she could find the middle note. She was a wonderful
musicianÖshe could play anything. So, she put out Schubert and played it
and I didnít like Schubert, but she said to me, ìOk, Jeannie, I want you
to try and use your own voice and now sing for me again.î And, I looked at
her and said, ìWell, what do you mean, I am singing in the only way I know
how.î She said, ìNow donít try and imitate me, just give me your own
unique sound.î And I said, ìI have no idea what youíre talking about.
This is the only sound I know how to make. Iím not imitating you.î So, I
started taking lessons. My mum asked around and I began studying at the Royal
Conservatory with William Parry. I started with him. I auditioned for the
Mendelssohn Choir and I had also just been accepted into the Ontario Youth
Choir. I was going to sing Aaron Coplandís ìIn the Beginning,î and
everyone was excited ëcause I had only had 12 lessons and ìIî was going
to sing a solo! You know, ìOH MY GOD. No one was gonna open any door for me
cause ìIî was in the Choral World.î (Laughing).

Jean: ìRight before the audition, my mom came up to me and said
(whispering), ìJeannie, Iím so sorry, I forgot to tell you that thereís
going to be a sight-reading test.î And I said, (whispering) ìOh, no.î
So, I sat there and as luck would have it a mezzo went in before me and she
sang the sight-reading exercise and Ruth Watson Henderson was playing the
piano, and was playing the notes and I memorized them. So, when I went in I
sight-read and I made the same mistakes that the previous girl had made
(laughing). I sang in the professional nucleus of the Mendelssohn Chorus and
I was terrified. You see, my mother did all the solos so Elmer thought,
ìWell, if her mother can do it, she can do it.î My mother and I were the
second alto section, complete. Anyway, in my first solo I cracked on a
ìDî. I was so nervous, and I thought ëAh Fuck.í I was 18 years old.
He didnít ask me to sing another solo.

Mary-Lou: ìWhat a story.î

Jean: ìWhen I became a soloist and did OratorioÖ.you know the Festival
Singers made a gorgeous sound and, you know, I loved being in the middle of a
chordÖI loved it. The first thing I did was the Poulenc ìGloria,î and I
was right there in the middle of these nasty chords. Thatís where I
belonged, and I was young and a little overweight and I didnít belong
anywhere but there, in the middle of the sandwich. But then, I wanted to
start to speakÖto say something for myself and I knew that I had to move
on. This was fine for mum but it wasnít fine for me. The reason was that I
was trying to find myself. I had a lot to say, but I didnít know how. So, I
joined the Tapestry Singers; then I did three operas in the Chorus of the
Canadian Opera Company, and I thought, ìYes, acting.î I went to the
University of Toronto to check out their program, but they didnít teach any
acting so that wasnít right for me. Then I heard about the Stratford
Festival, and I auditioned to get into the Gilbert and Sullivan productions.
I got into the chorus and there was a full-time pay-cheque and there you

Jean: ìPatricia (Kern) said, ìWell, you need an agent now.î So, I
got an agent and then Vancouver called and saw that I had done all these
roles. They got a cancellation and they were looking for a mezzo at the last
minute. They wanted me for the role of Olga in Eugene Onegin in
three or four days. THANK GOD the opera was in English instead of Russian.
That was my first opera with Richard Margison as my tenor, Joan Watson was my
soprano, and it was such a beautiful production with John Eaton as the
director and I went on from there.î

Mary-Lou: ìPatti, Iím going to ask you the same thing. Youíve also
had a diverse background and began your journey into the musical arts at an
early age, as well. Who would you say influenced you to proceed into what,
for every musician, is a daunting and untrodden path?

Patti: ìFor me, I wouldnít say that I encountered any leading musical
influences in piano until I picked up Clarinet in public school. My first
musical epiphany would have been at the Scarborough Music Camp. I was bumped
into the senior band and I played the bass clarinet and they needed a bass
clarinetÖI would have been 12. Everybody warmed up and put their
instruments together. The director put his baton down and said, ìWeíre
going to do a B concert scale,î and everybody played at the same time, and
it was that first note that I thought it was such a huge sound and there were
so many colours in that sound. As a pianist, you can pull colour from the
piano, but there were so many colours in that B-major scale. What could be
simpler, right? I remember just thinking I had died and gone to heaven. We
did some great literature. There were many strong, young players in that band
and we did Nimrod and to this day, if Iím driving and
Nimrod comes on the radio I have to pull over and I cry every time.
It was so moving to be a part of that, so I would say that it was strong
influence. Because we do spend so many hours at the piano by ourselves, to
sit in a group and be in a collective whole, to feel the power of the
organism, was amazing for me. I donít know, I had very kind teachers but
the ones I found that were the most influential was to listen, really
specifically, to Jazz pianists. Listening to where the note falls exactly in
the beat; why does that time kick me in the gut when I hear it? Pianists like
Bill Charlap, Hank Jones, Gene Di Novi, Bill EvansÖthinking really
seriously about touch. Why does this make me feel the way I do? Why loud, why
soft? Also, trying to play their transcriptions, and getting to know things
musically and technically, giving that sprinkle of pixy dust at the end that
takes you into the realm magic.

Mary-Lou: ìThatís really fabulous, but Iím going to ask you
something else because youíve brought me into that, and itís about
singing. For many, that word has many connotations. For some, itís simply
the practice of making sound with the voice, but for others it is a complete
language in itself. Throughout history, instruments have been created and
performed in an attempt, I think, to mimic the fluidity, range, depth, and
subtleties of the voice. One often hears, ìMake the line sing.î We think
of Bach fugues with vocal fachs in mind to bring out particular colours. When
you play with a singer, Patti, what do you feel the pianistís duty is and
what is it, for you, that creates the kind of collaboration you have with
this singer and this particular voice?î

Patti: ìFirst of all, I have to say Iím so extremely lucky to work
with this singer, and whether or not she knows it, I spend a great deal of
time looking at the back of her body, as most pianist do when they accompany
singers. Weíre talking about an extremely physical singer. Jean sings with
her entire body and I can tell by the set of her ribs or the way her muscles
are tensing down here (gesturing to lower back) whatís going to happen. I
can tell by her breathing, and I have to say that I havenít worked with bad
singers, but I would imagine it would be hard to work with a singer if the
breathing wasnít as good as hers is. It all starts with the intake of the
breath and the preparation of the body. If a singer isnít breathing in a
way that you can readÖcause thatís an aural cue, you can sense it. For
example, in our show, we both wear microphones and we didnít always
practice with the microphones on and anyway, one time we finished a phrase
and were about to begin the next phrase and I took a breath, and she turned
around and said, ìWhat was that?î and I said, ìOh, I think it was
me!î (Jean breaks out into a hearty diaphragmatic laugh). It was just me,
ëcause I was breathing with her, right? It makes things so much easier to
shape a phrase when youíre working like that. You know, Glenn Gould was a
huge influence on me and I guess Iíve always thought about voices. Maybe
thatís why I like working with a mezzo so much, because she can sing in
that netherworld, as well. When I find music for piano, I look for music
especially that has a well-promoted inner-voice because I donít want to
double anything sheís doing. The thing with Jean is that she never does
anything the same way twice. So, I listen really hard.

Jean: ìI really make her work.î

Mary-Lou: ìFor you, Jean, the idea of singing. The voice is such an
enigma and we try to define it or give name to it but it seems impossible
because itís so personal an instrument. Itís so unique and everyoneís
is different. You can hear, even on the radio, distinct qualities that define
the voice as Jean Stilwellís or Leontyne Priceís. You can tell if itís
Callas or Renata Tebaldi. What do you think about this language of singing?
How do you define the language of singing?

Jean: ìOh, extremely personal. It is a language that conveys the truth,
but no matter what, the audience knows exactly whatís going on because they
feel. They might not be able to define it but they watch and they feel what
you give them. So, if youíre nervous, if youíre upset, if youíre
angryÖwhatever, the audience senses it, even if you donít mean to portray
that or communicate that. The voice is ìthisî (gesturing near her heart
and with hands in an opening motion). My teachers talked about opening up
your chest and just exposing, and that is the truth. The goal is to be that,
and to stay there, and express the words and the music, which are equally
important; and so, I would have to say itís just about the most vulnerable
instrument. No matter what sound you make, it reveals the truth.

ìThe voice is the most vulnerable instrument. No matter what
sound you make, it reveals the truth.î Jean Stilwell.

Mary-Lou: ìI agreeÖ..what about Carmenís truth? Talk to me about
Carmen. Why her? Why you? What is it about Carmen that spoke to you, because
obviously, she has spoken to you and I think, now, that with this production
you are speaking through her, as well.

Jean: ìWell, I would have to say, first of all, because sheís so
powerful. Carmen really is incredibly courageous. Carmen is an animal. She
doesnít thinkÖsheís smart, but she sings with her body and thatís
what I do. She has a great sense of humour, and hereís a biggie: that
freedom. Thatís huge. Iím a claustrophobic and even if I put on clothing
thatís wrongÖyou know I hate hats. Carmen would never wear a hat ëcause
it encloses her. Sheís a nomad. A singer is a nomad, and yet people think
that Carmen is the leader of the pack and this kind of stuff. She would never
say, ìYou know, fuck men.î Carmen knew exactly what her place was but she
was very clever in trying to achieve it. You know, in the play she achieves
it for her husband and for the pack. She doesnít do it just for herself,
and that is blood. If youíre a gypsy, no one else can possibly come into
your life. You know, we were in Budapest and I was the train station and you
see the gypsies. Thereís no interacting. There is no notion that theyíre
welcoming or that they want you to go up to them. So, I think that this is
really what I loved about her; also, the fact that she loves to laugh and
dance and she celebrates her body. She loves passionately, but does
sheÖdoes she know? She says sheís in love, but is she? She doesnít even
know, because sheís not that clever. You know other people interpret, but
what do we knowÖitís like the Beatles. People listen and they say, ìOh,
theyíre talking about LSD in that Beatles tune,î and John would turn
around and say, ìHey were just some ordinary guys. I donít know, you
knowÖwhatever.î Thatís exactly, you knowÖshe does it and you
interpret it.î

Dialogue from ìCarmen Un-Zippedî
Courtesy of Patti Loach.

ìWhat lies in the belly of Carmen is her ferocious hunger for freedom. She has so much to teach us about loving, living, and choiceÖ

Carmen is a part of me.

She has inspired me during seminal moments in my life: falling in love, marriage, the death of my mother, the birth of my son, the end of my marriage, relationships and break-ups, and then someÖ

Carmen has been the one single thing in my life that has given me courage. Well, Carmen, and my sonÖ

Every time I sing Carmen, I fall in love with her all over again.

Jean: ìI had a most spectacular time doing Carmen in Pittsburgh. I was
doing a very traditional production of Carmen but the director had flown in
some flamenco dancers from Caracas and these girls were so hot, they were so
earthy. They were such an education to me. They were Carmen. They were all
Carmen. The great thing was that they wanted me to go out with them. They
wanted me to celebrate and on-stage in the scene in Lilas Pastiaís
Tavern, they would urge me toward them and I was just (Jean motioning to grab
their imaginary selves). You know they were just urging me to ìGive us your
crotch,î you know, like ìCome on. Give us the earth.î That felt sexy.
That felt hot. Sheís an animal and I can relate to that. In fact, the very
last Carmen that I did, the director said to me, ìSo, how do you want to do
this,î which was extremely flattering, and I said, ìWell, instead of me
portraying Carmen, why donít we do it as if Carmen is portraying me.î
ìShow me,î he said. So, thatís how I did it. Carmen was a little more
vulnerable. She was playful. She was ìreallyî angry and she showed her
anger more. She comes in from the sideÖ.I donít. My Carmen was a little
more in your face. Sheís a gypsy and she had to provideÖshe had to get
the money and she was the best at what she did. It was her job. The guy was
still the hierarchy, however, and she still bowed to the man. A lot of people
think that Carmen is the ultimate feminist, but I donít think so.î

Mary-Lou: ìSo, let me ask you this, as a musicologist, Iíve studied
Carmen in many different perspectives, but letís say in a more historical,
theoretical, philosophical methodology. I love what youíre saying and I
think she is really, in a musicological sense, one of the most complex
characters. I mean, if you have to stand in front of a group of students and
lecture to them about her, itís difficult because sheís so hard, sheís
so dangerous; but yet, she allures us all. We want her. We want to be seduced
by her but then we ultimately crave her death. We attend the opera already
knowing that JosÈ is going to murder her. Heís going to murder her. Heís
going to penetrate her with his knife. Itís a different death than a MimÏ
or a Manon Lescaut where it leaves a gaping hole in you, and you cry and you
leave. With Carmen, for some reason, and I ask my students this, ìDo you
feel that gaping hole?î Do you pity her? Do you cry for her? She knows
exactly what sheís doing. Itís so hard to define her because sheís such
an awesome character, and I donít mean awesome as in coolÖbut that you
canít put her in a box. You know, the death, for historians, is one thing,
but then we also ask, does she ever really have sex with anyone, because we
often donít ever see her having sex. Does she just tease?î

Jean-black-dress.pngJean Stilwell

Jean: ìItís up to the director. Itís often up to youÖitís your
playing field. Is she in love with JosÈ or no? Is she in love with
Escamillio, or no? Itís your playing field, and you get a choice. You find
it in the music and in the words. Iíve done it in several different ways.
For example, in Hamilton I thought the tenor was so fucking hot and then I
went to PittsburghÖî

Patti: ìDid she have sex on-stage with that tenor, or didnít she? I
mean, to what extent is that decision made by the casting specific to a

Jean: ìWell, it does, a lot. I think thatÖ.it seemed like we did
because we had that passion for one another. I took the same production to
Pittsburgh and this tenor was very different. This tenor was a maniac. We
didnít get along very well. The director came up to me and said, ìYou
donít like him do you?î And I said, ìNo,î and he said, ìShow me.î
I loved it. Oh my God.î

Jean: ìIf Carmen shows fear when she confronts JosÈ in Act IV, then we
would fear for her too. If she faces JosÈ knowing, in her heart of hearts,
that heís going to murder her, because she refuses to be put in an
emotional straight-jacket by him, then perhaps we should feel sorry for her;
less afraid for her. She knows sheís going to die and that JosÈ is going
to do it. She read it in the cards. She feels a very powerful connection to
JosÈ because of that; because of his dark side; because she, too, has a dark
side. Do we crave her death, or do we want her to find joie de vivre
with Escamillo, for however long? I donít think her state is pathetic. It
is her choice to die. Her raison díÍtre is freedom, so she has no
choice. She accepts her fate and honours it, and it is who she is. What is
sad for me is that there is no way out for her. In dying, she becomes free
rather than rage that this is the choice she has to make. She wants to be
with Escamillo and risks her life to do so. That is because he offers her
life. Why else does she go to the bullfight if she doesnít think she has a
chance at life with Escamillo? She knows that JosÈ is going to kill her, but
she doesnít know when or where. Maybe, just maybe, thereís a chance with
Escamillo. It is Frasquita who warns her that JosÈ is there, and suddenly
then everything changes. Carmen is, and she is not a victim. So, I RAGE for
Carmen. Their exchange begins and she wants desperately to get away. She
feels caged in and so she lashes out. She is in the moment. ìJust fuck it
and get it over with because being her with you is death. Kill me so that I
may be free. Fuck you. Iím not afraid. I am fucking angry. Come on, come
on, and do it. I dare you, you fucking coward.î

Jean-Carmencita.pngJean as ìLa CarmenÁitaî in the Opera Hamilton Production of Bizetís Carmen

Mary-Lou: ìLetís talk about ìCarmen Un-Zipped.î Patti, tell us
what inspired this production and collaboration.î

Patti: ìWe had done a show together called ìLove and Lifeî that
centered on Schumannís Frauenliebe und Leben, and that urged a lot
of conversation between us. We were looking at ideas for a show we could do
together that would incorporate many elements, such as: That sheís more
classical and opera and Iím classical, but also cabaret and musical
theatre, and jazz. We wanted to incorporate all of this and it occurred to
me, over many evenings of gorgonzola and Chianti, by listening to these
amazing stories from Jean, that we should just build a show around them.
These stories arenít just specific to a singer, theyíre stories of all
women and men who have fallen in love, fallen out of love, experienced the
joy and wonder in the birth of a child, the loss of a beloved parentóthese
are stories that resonate for everyone. Jean unzipped my perceptions of what
a diva is all about, and henceÖ ìCarmen Un-Zipped.î

Mary-Lou: ìAnd why did you think it would work? What ideas for promotion
did you conjure up and why a cabaret act?î

Patti: ìI knew the show would work because it addressed what is human in
all of us and I was working with one hell of a singer, who was ready to take
some serious risks. Whenever I sit in an audience, I want to be challenged as
well as entertained. I want to hear a story that is truthful, not maudlin. I
want a story that will make me look at myself as well as the performers.
Therefore, when I sat down to cull through all of Jean’s stories, I kept all
of that in mind: I assumed our audiences would be curious and intelligent and
demand excellent music, excellently performed. Plus, we’ve discovered some
beautiful music along the way, the songs of the New York
Singer/songwriter/pianist John Bucchino. Singing Bucchino’s music is what we
do to reward ourselves at the end of a rehearsal. I have the most beautiful
memory of being in a gorgeous, ancient house in Orvieto, Sicily. Jean is
singing; I’m playing a beautiful old grand piano; the floor to ceiling
windows are all thrown open, and all we can see out the window is blue, blue
sky. We finished our rehearsal, and toddled down to a restaurant by the sea
where, in typical Italian fashion, the tables on the patio were crowded
together. The Danish people at the next table found out that Jean was a
singer, and it turns out that while we had been rehearsing, that afternoon,
they had been walking around the streets, heard us, and had stood for about
20 minutes looking up at the open window, listening.î

Mary-Lou: ìThe relationship between a singer and pianist is one that, I
feel, is an extremely intimate. There is something about supporting a voice
that has a much different sensation altogether from supporting an instrument.
The roles of the singer and pianist have been changed and enhanced since the
inception of Lieder and, really, they are equal roles. The collaboration is
as strong as both partners are dedicated to their performance and each other.
Talk to us about your collaboration; how your diversities, as well as your
similarities, reflect upon the success of ìCarmen Un-Zipped.î

Patti: ìStephen Sondheim was once asked how to make a musical
collaboration work and he said, “Make sure you’re writing the same show.” I
like that. I’m constantly checking with Jean to define a direction, either
within a song or when I’m working on writing dialogue, and I’ll say, “Is this
what you want”, or “I think this line is important”, or “Are you sure you
want to share that?” Musically, although we have a partnership, I know that
Jean as the vocalist has the audience’s ears and eyes (Damn it). So, when
push comes to shove, singer trumps piano. It has to be that way. Luckily, for
us, I don’t think she’s ever had to play the trump card. We’re pretty much on
the same page when it comes to the music. We’re tight.î

Carmen_Un-Zipped.pngCarmen Un-Zipped: Jean Stilwell and Patti Loach

Mary-Lou: ìJean, letís take a bit of a controversial road and discuss
an issue that continues to fascinate many, and that is the comparison between
opera singers of today and those of the past, say 70 years. When we listen to
a Leontyne Price, or a Callas, Tebaldi, a Schwarkopf, a Jussi Bjorling or a
Moffo, and then listen to a RenÈe Fleming, an Anna Netrebko, a Ramon Vargas;
letís say, and a Natalie Dessay. We continue to hear those voices of the
past as remarkable, and there is no question that they were. Do you feel that
voices have changed? Has this genre mutated into a competition of physical
beauty and looks and suffered in terms of the actual music making?î

Mary-Lou: ìPerhaps, more specific to you, Jean, the mezzoís of the
past and today: Barbieri, Cerquetti, Simionato, Horne, Larmore, Von Otter,
Bartoli, Graham, Mishura, Troyanos, Baltsa, Zajick, BorodinaÖtell us, what
you think defines these voices, and yours included. There is something unique
in them, but also very similar and for many mezzoís, as we know, the
controversy over ìvoce di pettoî (chest voice) prevails. What do you
think about these voices and how they employed the dangerous mystery that
surrounds the mezzo fach.?î

Jean: ìTo each his/her/own. We, each of us have something to say,
otherwise we wouldnít chose to sing. The challenge is to find the route to
the depths of our self-knowledge and awareness. To sing requires great
courage. We are totally naked, no matter of emotional awareness. Each of
these singers had to find their own path and make their own choices based on
their emotional make-up. They are all extremely, emotionally huge. I respect
each of these singers and the choices they made because they made them. They
dared to go there. Yes, I have my favourites, but these choices are because I
feel the greatest connection and admiration for them. I have different
reasons for admiring each one.

ìI never liked Horne. I found her voice ugly no matter the brilliance of
her technique. Simionato was awesome. What an actress! Larmore has a
beautiful sound but is too emotionally soft for my liking. I only saw her in
recital once, so perhaps it is unfair of me to judge. I am INSANE for Von
Otter. I admire her as a woman. I love the colour of her sound. She is all
about colour and finding colour from an intellectual perspective. I admire
her lifestyle, her intelligence, her groundedness, and her discipline. These
are all things of which I wish I had more of. Troyanos was a mental case, and
I adored her. I wanted to take her in my arms and love her. She was so
vulnerable and for that, I fell in love with her. I adored her Octavian. I
loved Baltsaís balls, but I would never choose to sing like her. Her
singing was vulgar for me. Yet, I loved her animal-like behaviour. I thought
her Carmen was fabulous, but thatís all. Zajick blows me away. Sheís an
awesome power house! I get off on her largess. Thatís it. I, at one time,
wanted to have a voice the size of Zajick, but now I simply admire her for
what she does. I respect Bartoli but Iím not into her repertoire and so I
spend little time thinking or listening to her. I do admire the depths to
which she researches her fach. I respect her intelligence. My choices are
sooooo emotionally charged. So, there you have it!

Mary-Lou: ìIíd like to ask, Patti about the cross-over genre that
manifested itself years ago now. What do you think about this genre and do
you think it has served a purpose? For some classicists, they would say,
well, it may bring a more popular based audience to the opera and to
classical music, and for popular critics they see these singers as ìopera
singersî which to me indicates a well-trained voice, and a specific
ability. What do you think about it?î

Patti: ìMusic is personal. It’s subjective, so it’s hard for me to
comment on that. I listen to EVERYTHING with an open mind and I leave it up
to the performers to turn me off or on. For example, Jean and I went to see
the East Village Opera Company a couple of weeks ago: they do
classical arias with rock band arrangements. The singers are not specifically
classically trained opera singers; they’re musical theatre or rock singers.
For me, that show really brought home the fact that there are so many
beautiful melodies and gorgeous harmonies in the arias in opera. Should those
arias live only in opera halls? I don’t think so. Do classically trained
singers have the right to be territorial about that music? I don’t think so.
These arrangements were creative, and the performers were well rehearsed and
passionate and they told the story. Some of it I loved, some of it I didn’t
love, just like ANY live music performance. We’ve all sat in an opera hall
and rolled our eyes at scene chewers. My point is that there is good and bad
music everywhere, but I leave it up to the listener to make his own
decisions. Both Jean and I LOVED the Habanera that the East Village Opera
performed. Every Carmen is different.î

Mary-Lou: ìIndeed, and I would like to thank you both, on behalf of
Opera Today, for this enlightening and exciting interview. The best of luck
to both of you in all your future endeavours.î

Jean Stilwell and Patti Loach

Two wonderful women, consummate musicians and a few lessons for us all.
Musical partnerships of this sort are special, indescribable in words, and
really only understandable when one can be witness to their magical
properties in performance, through the language of music. Jean and Pattiís
musical connection is supported by a tremendous friendship, which makes this
collaboration even more wonderful to observe. A good model for all
singer/pianist relationships; when you find this irreplaceable musical
partnership, hang on to it and donít be afraid to look at your colleague
every so often and say, without speakingÖ.Ne me quitte pas.

By Mary-Lou Patricia Vetere, 2008
PhD (ABD), M.A., Mus.B

For more on ìCarmen Un-Zippedî or Jean Stilwell please visit: or CDs available,
please see websites

image_description=Jean Stilwell
product_title=Above: Mezzo-Soprano, Jean Stilwell
L’oiseau rebelle
product_by=This interview is dedicated by the author, with much respect, to the memory of “Margaret Stilwell”