Paul Plishka

See also "Man About the House"
and "A Singer's Life"

Paul Plishka:
"In dazzling vocal estate"

Paul Plishka as Boris Godunov
Paul Plishka as Boris Godunov
Metropolitan Opera

The beloved American bass, reflects on his auspicious career in opera: "It certainly doesn't feel like 25 years."

Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold
Opera Monthly, April 1991

As I nestled back into my seat in the eighth row at the Met's opening of Don Giovanni this season, I eavesdropped on the conversation of the subscribers behind me. A well-heeled matron read the cast list to her companion.

She seemed perplexed by what she regarded as a host of newcomers -- Studer, Hampson, Blochwitz -- but suddenly, her voice brightened as she pronounced the name of the man who would sing Leporello. "Ah, Paul Plishka!" she sighs. "He's wonderful! I've seen him so many times, and he's always fabulous."

During his nearly thirty-year career, the American bass has gained widespread popularity and critical acclaim as a leading artist at home and abroad. Thus, it is little wonder that Plishka's name inspires instant recognition and admiration at the Met, his home company to which he has devoted twenty-five years and with whom on September 21, 1991, he will celebrate his Silver Anniversary.

A young forty-nine, in dazzling vocal estate, thinner, tanner, and more vital than ever, Plishka spared some time from his hectic schedule to be interviewed in his cozy, highly personalized Upper West Side apartment and to reflect upon the anniversary, which he regards as a mere passing milestone.

Settling comfortably into a wing chair beneath an astute charcoal likeness of himself, the tall, leonine Plishka chuckled when I asked what it would be like to celebrate a quarter of a century at the Met. "It certainly doesn't feel like it!" he smiled, shaking his head in disbelief.

"Generally, when you work for an organization for a long time, you have the same colleagues who come and go with you, and you all grow old together. But today in this business, I would say the average career is probably ten years, maybe fewer, so if you've been around twenty-five years with the potential to go longer, you span a great deal of company history.

I'm working on my third generation of singers; I made my debut when Tebaldi, Corelli, and Merrill were there. I haven't usually had a sense of the time passing. I only felt it once at the revival of Romeo et Juliette a couple of years ago. I had been involved with the original production with Franco Corelli and Mirella Freni in the '60s, and I found myself walking around, saying to people, 'Do you know who did this role the first time?' And some of the young singers had never heard the names I mentioned! At that moment I felt that time was really moving along."

Jokingly seeking to dispel any impression of settled age, Plishka adds, "Of course, I was very young when I began," and he concedes that being a bass certainly adds vocal longevity "because the demands on the lower vocal categories are not all that stressful as those on a tenor."

He also believes that his own careful career pacing based on models like that of Cesare Siepi (an early colleague and idol) or Nicolai Gedda and Alfredo Kraus has helped him retain optimum vocal health. "These singers understood what they did best and pursued those directions. Of course, from time to time as a singer you like to experiment, but, in general, it is best to stay focused on your goals and try to preserve those things you feel are your best attributes -- the ones you want to give to your public."

Because Pliskha has succeeded so admirably in preserving the signature warmth, sheen, and power of his basso cantante, he has every reason to approach the September 21st date as a celebration, though he seems to prefer to downplay its significance.

"If I were looking at a twenty-five year career as the end, then I would be planning some fireworks, but I have a much bigger aim in mind. So, twenty-five years is really nothing!" he says with a mixture of modesty and determination that modulates into a nervous laugh when I suggest that perhaps the house will surprise their favorite son all the same.

Earnestly, he steers the conversation back to his recipe for vocal preservation. "I have made a great effort over the years not to abuse my voice. I try to take good care of my instrument by cautiously selecting the right roles and the number of performances I sing so I can give my very best to the Italian repertory I love most."

Though Plishka has sung a wide range of French, German, and Slavic roles as well, he stresses the importance of maintaining the beautiful line required for Verdi singing.

He has been careful to regulate his repertory choices outside the Italian fach. "The trouble with Wagner is that once you sing his heavy parts, it is almost impossible to return to the Italian line. I can prove to you over and over again that singers who specialize in Wotan find within three years that they cannot sing the Italian repertory without..." He breaks off to demonstrate his version of a declamatory Teutonic style.

"Habit does that. You just can't get the person to hear what he's doing. That's why I try to sing only the early, Italianate Wagner roles -- Daland, King Marke, King Henry. I have done Hunding, and I will sing Titurel this year in the Met's new Parsifal because Jimmy Levine asked me, and I would do anything for him, but for now at least I want to stay away from the Gurnemanzes."

Not only is Plishka cautious about Wagner, for whose work he claims to feel an intellectual rather than emotional identification, but he has also approached the "dangerous" Slavic repertory -- for which by his Ukrainian background and vocal attributes he seems stunningly suited -- with extreme care.

"I said I would not sing Boris until I was forty-five, and I didn't perform it at the Met until then, although I had tried it out two years before on tour. You have to have great emotional maturity just to be able to control yourself on stage. I could never have done it at twenty-seven when I was first asked by Gian Carlo Menotti for the Spoleto Festival.

When he called I volunteered to do the Pimen instead, and after another bass cancelled, he did engage me to play the monk. To sing Boris early on would have been deadly. They try to convince you by saying it's only five or eight performances, but it's not the performances that will kill you. It's the rehearsals! So I have avoided roles I felt were dangerous until I thought I had the maturity and theatrical stagecraft to create the necessary illusion without hurting myself."

When Plishka finally did assume the title role in Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov at the Met in March 1987, becoming the only bass in the company's history to sing Pimen, Varlaam, and Boris at the Met, he was amply prepared.

"I was coming to this production' [Everding/Ming Cho Lee] of the opera after performing Boris only a dozen or so times, but I'd been living with the part intimately for twenty years. I was the Pimen when the production was new and Tommy Schippers conducted with Martti Talvela singing. It's an old friend."

The revival revealed Plishka as an even more gripping, majestic presence; the voice dark, dynamic, and velvety, nevertheless, pointed the text with biting clarity and searing emotional intensity.

His Tsar was both a brutal potentate and a tender, vulnerable father who evokes chilling terror in the mad scene and profound pathos with his death, as he tumbles like a felled colossus down a long flight of stairs.

Plishka explains his interpretation with thoughtful conviction: "Boris is a very large and powerful man in a very crude and barbaric time. He controls his people with a fearsome brutality, the likes of which we cannot even comprehend. Yet, he is still human.

One of his greatest moments and conflicts is the one in which he realizes he is being cut off before he can fulfill his dreams, before he can pass on to his child his reign. The boy is very young and will be at the mercy of the wolves -- an image that crops up throughout the opera. I think it's important to stress this relationship with his children and his dying desire to protect Feodor. That gives him a human dimension."

Though Plishka has only begun to sing Boris recently, he is already much in demand for the role. In 1989 he performed the Tsar in Kiev, an event which remains one of the emotional high points of his career. His eyes burn with a liquid intensity as I probe to get him to articulate his feelings.

"It was a very, very special time. The year before I had sung a recital at the Bolshoi, and for a Ukrainian bass who sings the Russian repertory, the Bolshoi is one of the great performance pinnacles. They had given me Chaliapin's dressing room, which is practically a shrine now even though he was persona non grata for so long. Did you know they brought back his remains to Russia?" he interjects.

"The audience was so warm especially when I sang Russian songs that I was deeply touched. Then to go to Kiev the next year to sing in an opera which is a major part of their tradition, naturally, I was very apprehensive about singing Boris in the home territory.

When I got there I was stunned at the reception. They had hung these huge posters which said 'Kiev Opera, Paul Plishka, U.S. Metropolitan Opera Basso, September 27-29' in large type and then at the bottom in small letters 'Boris Godunov.' I have to show you," he adds with relish and tiptoes solicitously into the adjoining room to avoid disturbing his wife, Judy, who is ill. For Plishka, who comes of Ukrainian stock and who speaks both Ukrainian and, as he says, "labored" Russian, the guest appearances in the Soviet Union at the height of glasnost had deep significance.

Born in Old Forge, Pennsylvania, on August 28, 1941, the bass notes that his family bequeathed him no particular musical inclinations. "My mother always had a pretty voice when she sang lullabies," he reminisces, "but then I guess everyone thinks his mother's voice is pretty."

Speaking of his heritage, he says: "My grandparents left the Ukraine in 1912 and though my parents and I were born in the U.S., only thirty years have passed. Genetically speaking that is a small speck, so I have always felt that while my body, my flesh and blood, is Ukrainian and my mind couldn't be any more American -- conservative, right wing, whatever you want to call it -- my throat and my heart are Italian.

People try to type your voice when they hear your name. Very early on at the Met when I was speaking English to someone, a Mexican soprano turned to me and said, 'But you speak English so well!' They just assume when they hear 'Plishka' that I am from the Ukraine, and therefore, they conclude that I must have a Slavic sound.

But most people, even singers, say I sing in the scuola antica, a very forward, buzzy kind of sound you hear in someone like Lauri-Volpi. My teacher was a great fan of the Italian school and trained me in it, so I grew to love that kind of voice."

"Probably one of the greatest moments for me at the Met was the televised 1970s performance of Don Carlo with Benata Scotto."

Indeed, Plishka's cantante style is often praised for its smooth elegance, his technique for its effortless production, forward placement, and perfect legato. These qualities make him much in demand for Verdi. "Probably one of the greatest moments for me at the Met," the singer recalls, "was the televised 1970s performance of Don Carlo with Renata Scotto. For a bass who specializes in the basso cantante repertory to do Philip II in a live broadcast was a great thrill."

This desire to sing as much of the important Verdi repertory as possible has been largely responsible for motivating Plishka's decision to expand his American-based career into an international one in recent years. In a humorous analogy he explains his choice: "I hate to compare singing to mundane things like soap, but when you do your laundry and you use a product you like over and over again, you get tired of it and you want to try something new. So you go out and buy the box of detergent which says 'new and improved.' Inside, it is the same thing or worse, but you like the variety.

Opera houses aim for variety, too. They constantly try to engage new talent to attract the public So when you've been around one house as long as I have at the Met, you have to appreciate the fact that regardless of quality they must rotate their casting a bit. There is only so much space on a roster and so many performances any singer can expect to do in one place. If you want to do the important parts you feel you were made to do more frequently, then you have to travel to other houses."

In recent years this philosophy has brought Plishka to places like Toronto, Ottawa, Vancouver, Mexico City, Munich, Berlin, Vienna, Hamburg, Milan, Paris, and London. This year after his season at the Met, he will perform in Kovanschina in Vienna, while in the two previous seasons, in addition to his U.S.S.R. appearances, he toured with La Scala in Nabucco, I Capuletti, and the Verdi Requiem, receiving glowing notices.

Yet, despite his growing international reputation, Plishka still manages to devote the largest chunk of his time to the Met -- this 1990-1991 season alone forty-nine performances! Asked how he is able to negotiate such a busy schedule, he concedes that he is almost always on the go, performing, rehearsing, or learning new music.

"More than most singers in any given category I commit the bulk of my time to the Met. I am able to because, despite my preference for the Italian cantante roles, I still perform a wide spectrum of repertory while many other singers do not.

I sing some buffo parts together with serious ones, and I am at home in the Italian, French, German, and Russian operas. Because I sing Dulcamara and Leporello as well as Boris, I have the opportunity to perform more often at the Met."

I marvel at the stylistic and vocal flexibility which has permitted him to dart from Leporello to Boris to Wurm and Walter in Luisa Miller, Gualtiero in Puritani and Titurel all in this single Met season, and I remark on the impressively deft comic style he has evidenced in Elisir and Giovanni.

"When I first came upon Leporello as a young singer, it was played as a buffo role. Corena was a wonderful foil to Siepi's Don. Recently, the public and producers have tired of the buffo thing and are looking for a new concept like switching singers between Giovanni and Leporello or giving us a mean, bitter Leporello."

While he feels comfortable with the very human, likeable, and often funny Leporello he juxtaposes to Thomas Hampson's Don in the current Met run, Plishka is open to new interpretations.

"I watched about a half-hour of the Sellars production on public TV, and now I desperately want to see the whole thing. Some of the things they were doing with the recitatives were incredibly wonderful! And it is, after all, hard for many modern audiences to relate to period pieces. So the accessibility of this South Bronx-set production is an incentive."

Another recent comic debut for Plishka came in 1989-90 in Rossini's La Gazza Ladra in Philadelphia. The singer tells a charming anecdote of sharing the boards in this production with flutist James Galway, who was to play the crow. "Galway was so adorable that he was stealing the entire show, and he would have if he hadn't unfortunately fallen ill just before it opened. I used to tease him and say we never should do a production with kids, animals, or leprechauns!"

The bass's affinity for comedy is less surprising when one notes that Plishka actually began his Met career in buffo parts. "I auditioned at the Met, and because I had been singing Bartolo in Figaro and Bing wanted a cover for Fernando Corena, they asked me to sing a buffo aria. I said, 'I am not a buffo' because I wanted to sing the serious roles.

Rise Stevens, who was head of the National Company at the time, whispered something into Bing's ear, and he said, 'I understand you do sing Bartolo.' So, I gave him my rendition, and they offered me a contract for small parts and as a cover for all the major buffo parts. At first, I was ready to turn it down, but I had a wife and two kids, so I agreed providing they also would let me study some of the cantante roles. Then, as luck had it, another young bass who was offered the cantante repertory turned them down, so I was able to do both."

In the ensuing twenty-five years Plishka has tried to keep a judicious balance of buffo and cantante parts, though he envisions spending the final years of his career coming full circle. "I enjoy the complexity of character roles, but I cannot concentrate on these parts -- especially the buffo ones -- too early because it would be dangerous vocally."

He illustrates with snatches from Forza, singing both Melitone and Guardiano, the former with the exaggerated swooping and coloration of the buffo line, the latter with a beautiful delicacy. "The danger is picking up bad habits which you can't shake," he warns, repeating Guardiano's "Troppo, signore" in character fashion complete with broad gestures.

The obvious animation and witty charm with which he performs these snippets demonstrate not only his fondness for the comic repertory, but the singer's own warm, relaxed sense of humor, one of the qualities that has endeared him to colleagues and fans throughout his career.

In many ways, Plishka is a singer's singer -- an artist both respected and loved in the business, at the same time that he has inspired affection and loyal devotion in his public.

The near-capacity crowd that braved New York's January 11th snowstorm to hear his first Boris of the season and who stayed on well past midnight joining with orchestra members who remained in the pit to give Plishka a standing ovation bore witness to the estimation in which the singer is held. Plishka values his relationships with the public and colleagues and remembers with appreciation the kindness received in his long career.

He tells a story of one major breakthrough at the Met in the late '60s when he made a last-minute substitution as Oroveso in a broadcast Norma. "I was the third or fourth cover, and there were people way ahead of me, so I thought I'd never get to sing it. I knew the part well enough to fake a rehearsal, so I wasn't worried. Then about 10:30 that Saturday morning, Merle Hubbard in the Breslin office called me and asked, 'Paul, how's the Oroveso?' I said, "Terrific. Why?' And he said, 'Well, it's the broadcast with Joan Sutherland and Marilyn Horne, and you're on.' I thought, 'Oh, my god!' I grabbed my score and crammed for the next three hours.

They promised me that Richard Bonynge would be in my dressing room an hour before to work with me. Well, of course, he showed up at five minutes to two and said, 'Don't worry, my boy. It'll be fine' Do you know it was the men in the chorus who were my priests who helped get me through that show? After the opening aria which I had sung before, I had no idea what I was supposed to be doing, but every time I sang a line, they would whisper, 'Great, Paul, great. Now come this way.' That was one of my big breaks."

The Norma broadcast was only one important step along the road to prominence. Though Plishka says that during his Pennsylvania youth he wanted to be a farmer or a football player, even his kindergarten teacher marveled at his boy soprano and urged voice lessons for him at age five.

"Fortunately, my parents did nothing about it. Then when I was thirteen, I started guitar lessons, and my teacher would give me five minutes instruction in guitar and the rest in singing. But the real impetus came when I moved to Paterson, New Jersey. A high school teacher there was an aspiring tenor, and he produced opera and musical comedy locally. When he heard me in the school chorus he invited me to sing Judd in Oklahoma. That's how I was bitten by the stage bug.

Louis, my teacher, and one of his friends, Armen Boyajian, founded the Paterson Lyric Opera Theater, and they asked me at seventeen if I would like to be involved. I said, 'Sure.' I would do anything because I loved music. Armen later became a voice teacher, and I became his first student. He still is my teacher and Sam Ramey's too."

Plishka attended Montclair State College, married his teenage sweetheart, Judy, and fathered three sons:Paul, Jeffrey, and Nicolai. His 1961 debut with the Paterson Lyric Opera was followed by his performances in the Met's National Company from 1965-1967.

"That was my theatrical education," he recalls fondly. "To be on the road and sing in seventy or eighty cities in seven to eight months, a different opera every night in a different town was quite an experience! You'd walk on to a stage you had never seen before and give all you had."

Then in 1967 he made his debut with the parent company as a monk in Gioconda. "I performed thirty-five or forty roles -- the Sacristan, the Figaro Bartolo -- and covered Melitone, Dulcamara, the Barber Bartolo that first season. Many of them were very small, but I had to learn them all. I would go to the opera house in the morning and work five hours a day, coaching with the greats like Jan Behr, Ignace Strasvogel, and this great lady here."

He points reverentially to a photo of the recently deceased Alberta Masiello. "She was one of the great, great people who influenced generations of singers in her lifetime. I was very upset at the New York Times obituary, which was very brief and gave the impression that she was merely an opera coach. You could have written an entire book about her work, and she deserved front page coverage. She was,a profound inspiration in my career and in so many others."

This passionate eulogy complete, Plishka returns to his tale: "I had the best coaching available. Do you know what it would have cost me to study all these parts on my own? Here I was getting paid to do it! Then I'd go to the opera every night. The second season I sang 118 performances. By now I've done just about 1000, so for me singing at the Met is like singing in the shower for you." (I laugh because he can have no idea how flattering and erroneous his comparison is.)

"It is home. After several seasons of singing the buffo repertory," he continues, "I got the chance to sing Wurm in Luisa Miller with Ruggero Raimondi as Walter. Wurm is a kind of grade-B Iago, but it's a great role even though it has no aria. I've always felt that if I could speak to Verdi, I could convince him to combine Wurm and Walter into one part. That performance and the chance I had to sing the duet with Ruggero in the Bing gala were big steps for me.

"Another major breakthrough was the Anna Bolena recording which Beverly Sills invited me to do with her. When she first offered I said no because I believed you made recordings only after you had sung a role ten or fifteen years and it was one of your signature parts. For that reason I declined, but then I said, 'Who else has sung Anna Bolena in the last twenty-five years?' Beverly had fought to have me in the cast, and I felt if I didn't d'o it, they would get someone else who had never sung it either, so I might as well."

The recording proved to be the first of more than twenty-five complete operas Plishka has made -- an impressive discography to which he adds his recent release of a solo album on the French Forlane label and a upcoming recital of Ukrainian folk songs.

The '80s found the singer established as a leading bass at the Met and at the beginning of his international career. Asked what differences he has found among his various publics, he replied, "Cultural differences mostly. Geographically, the further south you go, the more overt the public is with their feelings, the more vocal they become in their appreciation. American audiences, excepting those in San Francisco and New York which are not typical American cities, are generally a little cooler in the expression of their approval."

"Many singers get sick in a new city because each place has its own inventory of contaminants. . . . San Francisco is notorious for its dampness. It's the only city in the world air-conditioned by God! It's lovely, but dangerous healthwise."

Travel, especially jet travel, the singer finds "tough" and fraught with potential hazards. "Many singers get sick in a new city because each place has its own inventory of contaminants. If you live in New York, your body adjusts to the baddies there, but then when you go to London or San Francisco, you are attacked by a few little germs against which you have no defense. San Francisco is notorious for its dampness. It's the only city in the world air-conditioned by God! It's lovely, but dangerous healthwise."

In the past as in the present, Plishka has certainly done his fair share of traveling, especially as a regular on the Met's annual tour. Asked if he missed that venerable institution, he quickly replied in the affirmative. "The tour was important, especially for young singers. For example, I had a chance to do my first Ramfis with Fausto Cleva or my first Boris in Minneapolis with all the advantages of the Met's excellent staff and preparation. People would come to Minneapolis from as far away as the Dakotas or Montana once a year. Some would complain that they got a second cast, but it was still a big event. Now that it is gone I suspect the void will eventually be filled by good regional companies. Cities like Cleveland and others should have their own companies, and I think they will as soon as the former Met financial backers realize the necessity of throwing their support behind the idea!"

The tour holds many fond personal memories for Plishka as well. "We were a family, and we had lots of fun. We did some crazy things," he reminisces, recounting a story about himself and his close friend, tenor Charles Anthony. "One of my great passions is fishing, and because we were completely rehearsed before going on tour, we had the days free. One spring day in Cleveland, Charlie and I were out in a canoe in the Akron Reservoir system. It was very cold, and we had brought along a bottle of Courvoisier to warm our innards. Well, I guess we had had a little too much brandy because we both stroked the same side of the canoe at the same time with a bit of vigor, and it went right over. The next thing we knew we were in some icy water about fifty yards from shore looking down at our canoe. We started paddling. I could feel my chest muscles beginning to tighten, and I was worried about my buddy. I was in my early thirties at the time and rather fit, but it was still scary. We can laugh about it now, but it was dangerous!"

Handling mishaps with aplomb is something any performer learns, and in his long career Plishka has had his share of funny but nerve-wracking experiences.

He loves to tell in vivid dramatic narrative stories of his early days at the Met such as the time when he was singing Zuniga, Carmen's officer suitor, with Regina Resnik, who rubbed up against him sexily and caught the famous rose in the bass's ring. "As she moved away, the rose was gone, but she didn't realize it until she walked up to Jose very seductively and hurled at him nothing but a fistful of air!"

Apparently the role of Zuniga was laden with traps. In another incident, "I was a young boy at the time and very proud of my physical strength. So I had worked out a great duel with Jon Vickers, the Jose. Jon is a very physical performer, so we would go at it like two bulls. Then another famous tenor replaced Vickers, and since we had had no rehearsal of that scene, I asked him if he wanted to run it beforehand.

'Don't worry,' he replied congenially. 'It'll be fine.' I said, 'Okay,' " Plishka recalls, his voice pitching up in disbelief. "So we get onto the stage, and he smacks me with his glove." He rises to his feet to demonstrate, and within seconds, he is re-enacting the scene for me with swashbuckling relish, continuing the narrative in the present tense. "I have this saber in a metal scabbard which I am supposed to whip out and send the scabbard banging against the wall with lots of noise and dramatic flourish. So, swoosh -- I take it out, and the sword sticks halfway down. I tear the scabbard off, throw it against the wall, and I see that the tenor is staring at me in disbelief."

"In my next move I am supposed to hit the table with the sword and come after him, but as I do a big piece of it breaks off, flies up into the air and into the orchestra pit. Well, by this time I can see that right through his make-up José is white. I'm sure he's saying to himself, 'Oh, my God, I've got a nut on my hands.' As I come flying at him with the sword, he falls down to his knees and covers his head with his hands. So what am I to do? I had to stand there until the chorus came and pinioned my arms."

On another occasion, while singing Ashby in Fanciulla del West, Plishka indulged his desire to appear macho. "There is a great moment at the end of the opera when I ride on, deliver one line and leave. They used to lead me in on a horse, and I didn't like the way that looked, so I decided to ride the horse unattended down to the footlights. After all," he adds teasingly, "I had worked on a farm with dairy cattle, so I had no fear of large animals, and I had grown up in the '50s with Gene Autrey and Roy Rogers as my Saturday movie matinee heroes."

"On opening night I rode the horse in, sang my line, turned and thought, 'I'm going to make this a good exit.' I pulled the reigns hard, and the horse reared, raced upstage, and as he was supposed to make the turn to go off, his back legs flew out from under him. How I managed to stay on, I'll never know. The audience just gasped. After that I had to concede defeat to the animal. He would never again let me ride him down front without assistance."

Plishka talks of these incidents as if they were yesterday, and it is clear from his delight in recalling them that his tenure at the Met has been dotted with many such warm, funny, and human moments. He talks of the bonding between him and his colleagues, and as he proudly shares some of his favorite photos with me, it is evident that he is one of those rare artists in this hectic modern business of opera who have found time for friendship. He has also made time for his family and private life a precious priority. His long, stable, and happy marriage and his three sons are obvious [sources] of pride.

"The first twelve or fifteen years of my career, when the boys were growing up, Judy and I lived in New Jersey, and though my hours were weird, I was probably home more than most nine-to-fivers. I spent a great deal of time with them, and they often traveled with us. My wife was an English major so she even tutored Nicolai for a whole year. It was great for him to be able to study Roman history in Rome!

My boys also all love opera. They did even when they were young. My second son used to refuse to go to nursery school without his complete recording of The Marriage of Figaro. When they were teenagers, I would walk by their rooms and hear Giovanni playing, and then an hour later the Grateful Dead. They have marvelously catholic tastes. To them it is all music.

Unfortunately, I love most other forms of music, but I have a hard time with rock. I think it's because of the fact that when rock came in in 1959 or so, my life was totally absorbed in opera. Judy and I would go as standees to the Old Met three or four times a week. We even cut class sometimes to stay in line."

As in any successfully managed career, Plishka has had to make commitments and choices along the way. He speaks about them with the candid self-assuredness of someone who has definite tastes without being close-minded. He loves show music, for example, but finds no time in his opera and recital schedule to sing much. He prefers live performance to recording, though he acknowledges that recordings and videos "do provide a great deal of satisfaction for music lovers and thus should not be neglected."

While he approaches avant garde productions with caution, he is not opposed to experimentation. Of modern rgisseurial concepts he says, "Your contract should specify the general framework of the production and with whom you will be working, which doesn't happen that often when you are booked four years in advance. Then sometimes you arrive for rehearsal and find yourself in conflict because you cannot do what is asked of you or you're not comfortable with some strange things. If you say, 'That's not right,' and they say the same thing, someone is going to have to go. If that someone is you, you find yourself out of work for five to eight weeks!"

Plishka claims he has been relatively fortunate in this respect. Because of the long periods he spends at the "traditional" Met, he remembers only the Ponnelle Dutchman as being "like a bullfight with fist fights and people shrieking at the premiere." He adds irreverently that "had it been Verdi, I would have been outraged, but I enjoyed it because it was Wagner. The place," he taps his heart, "is just not as warm here for Wagner."

Yet, despite his fondness for traditional opera at the Met, he asserts that he is open to "experimentation in the right setting -- on television, at Brooklyn Academy of Music, in Santa Fe, Central City, or St. Louis," and he advances the notion that "Lincoln Center desperately needs another, specially designated experimental theater." For Plishka, however, the Met, with its size and grandeur, is simply not the place. As one of the blessed few artists who genuinely seem at home vocally and dramatically in a 4000-seat venue like the Met, Plishka speaks eloquently of his approach to operatic characterization.

"Today's operatic stage is one of the most difficult places to convey character because of the distances between performer and audience.

Much of the acting has to be large, grand, what some people may feel is artificial. But you have to soar over a very large and loud orchestra and reach the person sitting in the auditorium. When I am in the audience, I like to be able to sit back in my seat and feel the presence of the performer on me, feel their sound pressing me against the back of my chair. If I find myself leaning forward attentively, I get uncomfortable because something -- the character or the voice -- just isn't reaching me."

"I believe in big movements and gestures. I don't mean to say you have to be burlesquely broad, but you do have to project. I know what works for me. I feel it even though I can't really name specific tricks."

Plishka does not really have to. It is clear from his energetic response and from the power of his performances on stage that the qualities he cites are all part of that mysterious combination of intuition, imagination, and artistry that great artists possess: the ability to convey with vocal ease and beauty, musicality, dignity, and majesty the external and internal realities of another human being. Twenty-five years have honed these gifts to new musical and dramatic heights and paved the way for a future of ever-deepening interpretive discovery.

I press him to talk about that future. New productions? New recordings? Of the recordings he replies tentatively, "I never go anywhere I am not invited. I'd love to do another solo album, but I'm waiting to be asked. I will record Luisa Miller with the Met this spring, and the Met's Figaro which I did should come out soon."

The long and happy alliance with the Met promises to continue, just as Plishka hopes in the next decade to advance his European career by singing more of his cherished basso cantante roles.

Asked where he would like to find himself professionally in the year 2000, he takes up the theme with which we began, "I have gone to great lengths to preserve my voice -- to keep it healthy -- so I am able to give it as much as possible to the Verdi-Italian repertory. I would like to continue doing that at the same time that I hope to bring to my work the new emotional maturity of a performer who has been singing for twenty-five years." The tone of his response is typical of Plishka's innate artistic humility and dedication.

He clearly loves his profession so passionately that he eschews star allure and remains devoted to the higher goals of ensemble and musical integrity.

There are no traces of ego -- only intelligence, commitment, compassion, and warm humanity which form the well-springs of his artistic imagination and the spiritual support for his technique.

The singer enters the '90s in flourishing vocal health. His beautiful basso cantante together with his increasingly incisive dramatic gifts all hold the promise that at the millennium Paul Plishka's name will be emblazoned among the most significant American artists of this century, perhaps even, as this critic staunchly believes, among the great basses of our age.


See also
"Man About the House" (Opera News interview)
"A Singer's Life" (New Jersey Record interview)

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© 1999 George M. Martynuk Inc.
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