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TIM HONEY: You can get your community to have a sister city in Africa and have that focus be on AIDS. And you can take any issue like that and really make a difference on the ground at the community level.
KEITH PORTER: This week on Common Ground, sister cities. And opera singer Carol Vaness.
CAROL VANESS: I never thought of it as, “Oh, I have to make my debut at the Met. Oh, I have to sing in Paris, I have to sing in Rome.” I never thought of it like that. I thought more of, I loved the singing so much I just wanted to be better at it.
KRISTIN MCHUGH: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It’s produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Kristin McHugh.
PORTER: And I’m Keith Porter. Communities around the world are joining hands to foster discussion and promote peace through various sister city programs. The Washington-based Sister Cities International alone has partnered 2,500 communities in 138 different countries.
MCHUGH: Common Ground‘s Hélène Papper talks with Sister Cities’ Executive Director Tim Honey about the many intricacies involved in partnering communities around the globe.
Well, Sister Cities International emerged out of a White House summit that was held by President Eisenhower in 1956. He was looking for ways in which citizens could be involved in trying to lessen the tensions of the Cold War. And one of the specific ideas that emerged from this White House summit was the notion of US cities twining up, pairing up, with cities around the world to foster better understanding at the international level and hopefully promote peace. And what the cities work on depends upon the interest of the sister cities and the interests at the community level. And so it can range from healthcare to economic development to student exchanges to environmental initiatives-it’s whatever the communities decide are most important, that they need to work on together.
HÉLÈNE PAPPER: Is this partnership between cities geared towards educating Americans about the rest of the world or educating the rest of the world about the United States?
HONEY: It’s both. And it goes beyond education. It also goes to actual assistance. And the assistance is often two-way assistance. For example, there are many US communities that provide health-related services and products to hospitals in their sister cities. And in return those cities will send delegations over to the hospitals in the communities in the United States. So it’s a two-way learning and exchange experience.
PAPPER: Exporting the notion of democracy and human rights, is that one of your goals?
HONEY: Yes it is. Since the end of the Cold War. And the importance of the United States playing a role in helping to build and sustain democratic institutions in countries throughout the world.
PAPPER: So how do you go about that?
HONEY: Well, there, it’s interesting. The State Department as well as United States Agency for International Development have a number of programs that our communities can participate in. And those programs will team up US cities with their sister cities, for instance, in Russia or the Ukraine, and work on municipal problem-solving issues. And often a part of that in terms of solving a problem such as how to dispose of garbage.
PAPPER: Do you feel democracy is a notion that can be exported? And do you think it can be applied to foreign countries who don’t necessarily have that kind of tradition? Do you think it’s the best thing for them?
HONEY: Well, I think you need to look at democracy as a value and not a set of institutions. And institutions will differ from country to country and city to city. But I think all people throughout the world yearn to be free, to participate in the political process, in the decision making. And especially they yearn for that at the local level, in the communities where they live and work. And that is a value. So that, I believe, people around the world share.
PAPPER: It seems that only the countries with good relations with the United States are chosen as partner cities.
HONEY: Well, we do have a policy-and this is something that our board of directors is going to revisit it-they haven’t taken a look at it for about 10 years-and the policy is that we do not recognize, formally, sister cities in countries where we do not have diplomatic relations. Now, there is a lot of interest right now, for example, in Cuba-US sister cities. And there is a whole movement that is springing up around that. And we have kept in touch with that movement. We hope when diplomatic relations are restored with Cuba that those sister cities will come within the umbrella of Sister Cities International. And I think that is now possible because the thaw is occurring. And so travel restrictions have been lifted. It is possible to get visas to Cuba. While we don’t have diplomatic relations in Cuba we do have offices down there from the federal government.
PAPPER: Have you ever made any attempts to create ties with cities that aren’t diplomatically connected with the United States?
HONEY: Well, we encourage people. We have to say that we can’t formally recognize them, but if a community decides-let’s take Iran as an example. If a US community decided that it was important to attempt to enter into a relationship with a city in Iran we would not discourage that community from doing so. I mean, we would provide them with whatever advice they were seeking. We simply would not formally recognize them until we had formal diplomatic relations.
PAPPER: What are the benefits and what are the successes thus far in Sister Cities International?
HONEY: Well, the benefits and the successes take place at the community level. My son was involved in a Sister City program. This was in Boulder, Colorado. One of Boulder’s sister cities is Jalapa, Nicaragua. And when he was in high school he had the opportunity to go with a delegation of high school students one summer down to Nicaragua, to live with a family in Jalapa, to learn Spanish when he was there. But the project that they were working on was an extremely important project to the community, ’cause it was building a water system, building a water pipe that came from the mountains down to the town of Jalapa, so they would have safe drinking water.
PAPPER: School programs and youth groups seem to really take advantage of this partnership…
PAPPER: …with foreign cities. What about adults?
HONEY: Many adults do, too. And adults of all ages. We have a lot of senior citizens that are involved in Sister Cities. And increasingly a lot of business people that are involved because of, we are becoming a, we have become a global economy. Businesses are dependent upon their contacts and ties in countries where they’re doing business. And Sister Cities is often a way to open up new doors for economic success.
PAPPER: Do you feel that there have been any failures?
HONEY: Probably the biggest, biggest difficulty that I have seen is that so often Sister City programs will do wonderful things and will be involving lots of people. But over time the community shifts its focus and new people will come in, and it’s sometimes hard to sustain that energy. And so often communities will come to us and say, “You know, 10 years ago we really had a very, very active Sister City program in Germany. But the interest has fallen off a little bit. Do you have ideas about how we could reactivate that interest?” So, the idea behind Sister Cities is that these are permanent, ongoing relationships. But as in any relationship they need to [be] nurtured and they need to be supported. So it’s very important, because this is all citizen driven, that the local government sends a signal to their citizens, that this is important. And in fact, to be recognized as an official Sister City of the network the local government has to pass a formal resolution supporting that relationship.
PAPPER: Okay. What is your hope for the future? What are the goals for the future of Sister Cities International?
HONEY: Well, we see this network continuing to grow and expand, and to deepen in its impact upon promoting world peace and understanding, to alleviating some of the severest problems that we have as global citizens-problems of abject poverty, problems of aid, problems associated with global warming and climate change. And Sister Cities provides people at the community level who are concerned about these issues, but don’t know how they can make an impact-well, through Sister Cities they can make an impact. So you don’t have to sit on the sidelines. You don’t have to be frustrated because you can’t do anything about the AIDS epidemic in Africa. You can do something about it. You can get your community to have a sister city in Africa and have that focus be on AIDS. And you can take any issue like that and really make a difference on the ground at the community level, both in the cities overseas as well the impact upon the US communities.
PAPPER: Tim Honey is Executive Director of Sister Cities International. For Common Ground, I’m Hélène Papper.
MCHUGH: Internationally acclaimed opera singer Carol Vaness, next on Common Ground.
CAROL VANESS: The French are much more demonstrative when it comes to booing, and so are the Italians, than we ever would be in the United States. They show their dislikes and likes not just by not applauding.
MCHUGH: You don’t need to be a fan of opera to appreciate the talent of Carol Vaness. She has filled opera houses around the world. But when she’s not traveling the globe she’s a down-to-earth California resident.
PORTER: Common Ground‘s Hélène Papper talks with Vaness about her career and what launched her incredible success.
[Vaness singing an aria]
VANESS: I was there as an undergraduate studying piano. And as part of the piano degree you had to have a voice class. So I went to the voice teacher and signed up for the voice class. And I thought, “Oh my goodness, he’s so good looking.” And in the end it turned out that he was gay. So it didn’t work out for me personally in that way, but it worked out for me in another way, where because I was so interested in him, initially, and he was so interested in music, he got me more and more interested in opera and in, just in any kind of vocal art. He handed me a recording of the Krista Ludwig (??) Kindertotenleider. And I listened to it and he said, “Now, I want you to sound just like this.” I started as a mezzo, actually. I studied as a mezzo when I was in undergraduate school.
And one thing led to another. I just started to love singing more and more. People started to pay great attention to me whenever I would sing. I have to say it made me feel very beautiful. And I never in my life felt particularly beautiful or attractive. And I, there was just something about the attention that the audience gave back to me. And through those series of auditions ended up with the San Francisco Opera as an affiliate artist. And came to the attention of Beverly Sills. It ended up she brought me to New York, and from New York many people heard me. And then it was just a set of dominos. So I’ve been very blessed and very lucky, and thank god, ready at the right time.
PAPPER: Umm hmm. You’ve had a career filled with many of the major opera roles a young singer could only dream of. And you’ve performed in the world’s major opera houses and concert halls. Did you ever think that there was a possibility when you first started out taking those voice classes in California that you’d end up with such an incredible career.
VANESS: No, to tell you the truth. Because I never thought of it as, “Oh, I have to make my debut at the Met. Oh, I have to sing in Paris, I have to sing in Rome.” I never thought of it like that. I thought more of, I loved the singing so much I just wanted to be better at it. I remember, I thought, “How ridiculous. I would never sing at the Met. Who would want me at the Met.” But you know, and I’ve sung there for 16 years. So, you know, you just, you never know. I never planned it. I just, I wanted to be better.
PAPPER: Opera, besides being challenging in terms of performance and voice quality, is also challenging because of all the different languages that you have to familiarize yourself with. How did you approach this hurdle, or was it even a hurdle for you? Do you feel you know German, French, Italian fluently? Or how does it work?
VANESS: I would say for most of the Americans you end up what I would call “opera fluent.” In that when I arrive in Paris I know how to read the names of the streets so the taxi drivers don’t give me that look. And I know how to ask “When is my rehearsal?” And how to hear the response. And the more comfortable, the more you travel to the different countries-I mean, we’ve all had training in the beginning of our career. You all, we all have French, we all have Italian, we all have German. And you know, you learn words, you learn this and you learn that.
But in truth you don’t really learn a language until you go to that country. I learned the most Italian I ever learned when I was doing Mozart operas in Italy. Because in most of the Mozart operas you have long récitative, and récitative being the talking part, you know, that doesn’t have the full orchestra playing with you. And it’s kind of where the story gets pushed along, where you have the more play-like aspects of an opera. With, there are so many words in récitative that your vocabulary up. Then on an everyday basis you just pick things up. You know, even the difference between English and American, you pick up. Where you would say, you know, “Excuse me, where is the lift?” instead of “Excuse me, where’s the elevator?” So, I mean, there are many different things that you just pick up with experience. As for being fluent I can’t even claim to being super-fluent in English. Or American. But I do know that I’m comfortable in any of the countries I’ve been to. And luckily in Japan they do mostly speak English, because as much as I’ve picked up one or two words I don’t think I would be capable of speaking Japanese. But you never know. Most singers have very good ears and those sorts of things come naturally.
PAPPER: Sure. And do you feel that when you start a new opera, or when you’re singing, that you understand everything that you’re singing?
VANESS: Oh, yes. I think it’s essential. For me, you have to go first really to the libretto. I mean, you have to learn the music through the words. Because I don’t believe they’re separate at all.
VANESS: [speaking to a group of people in a large hall or room] ….to include program notes. Because I wanted to talk to you and tell you a little bit about each song before I do it; then you’ll get a better idea. This first set of songs that I’m doing, first of all you have to use your imagination. You have to picture me as a 16, 17-year-old Italian girl. She watches. She sees her boyfriend and she tells him, “Okay.” This is the first song. “This is what you have to do, honey. I want you to go out there. And I want you to win that flag for me. You know, I’ll be here. I’ll watch you and I will cheer you on at every moment. And you had better work hard at it. Because otherwise you’re going to be very embarrassed in front of your friends…’
[Vaness singing an aria]
PAPPER: What language do you feel the most comfortable performing in?
VANESS: Italian is probably my most comfortable. It’s the one I’ve done the most of. But I’ve done quite a bit of French as well. And so those two. German is probably my least comfortable. I’ve done very few opera parts in German. Just like Fledermaus or something like that. But, and French, I love singing in French, to tell you the truth. It’s, but it’s a slightly more closed language than Italian so it requires a different concentration and you have to be careful how you mix it through your schedule. I would say on the whole, I almost always sing in Italian.
PAPPER: You said earlier, you went from being a mezzo-soprano to a soprano. Do many opera singers change their voice range through their career?
VANESS: Well, just as your voice changes when you hit puberty and your body changes as you go through life, your range changes a little bit, anyway, naturally. I think a lot of singers-you would be surprised, people who started as one voice part and ended up another one. That happens to many people because we judge our Fach, that is our, wherever we’re put vocally, by not just, you know, the fact that you can sing high or low. There are many mezzo-sopranos who could probably sing much higher than me. But the timbre of their voice is very different than mine in certain areas of the voice. So, I think that also as you get older, I’ve seen many sopranos who’ve become mezzos later in life, just because they want to keep singing.
PAPPER: You’ve been performing around the world since the 1980s. So tell me a little bit about that. Do you feel like the world is your home? Or do you still consider a certain place to be your true dwelling?
VANESS: I think I will always feel, even with its smog and everything, when I get home to Los Angeles, it always feels-for me there’s something about just the smell, I guess of the ozone layer. I’m not sure what it is. I always feel very comfortable there. I have to say though, I’m, it is a great, great blessing, to travel as much, even though it can be a pain. But the great thing is that I have friends that are literally all over the world, that just circle the globe. And if I wasn’t an opera singer and I didn’t travel, I would never see them. And I never would have met them. So, I do feel at home in many places. I feel very at home in London. I feel at home in Paris. I know where my dry cleaner is in Paris. I know where my favorite markets are. I know where I can buy a sweater that fits me. You know, I mean, and that’s a consideration in Paris.
PAPPER: Do you feel you perform differently, depending on the country that you’re in. For instance, have you noticed cultural differences in terms of people’s reactions, likes and dislikes, when it comes to opera?
VANESS: Yes. Very much so. I find that, for example, the French are much more demonstrative when it comes to booing, and so are the Italians, than we ever would be in the United States. They show their dislikes and likes not just by not applauding. And so there’s a certain amount of that, that I’ll be surprised at. If you’re sitting in a performance and someone is getting booed, you’re always thinking, “My god, I can’t believe they really do this.” In England it’s a slightly cooler atmosphere, but it’s still a very warm atmosphere. Japan is very cool while you’re actually performing. But at the end of the show they go crazy. I mean, it’s amazing. They’re like Italians, they go so wild.
And in America, it depends on the city, really. The city and the people that are in it. Because there are some cities that-like, I find Chicago to be very warm and they love their opera, but in terms of their applause it’s always just a very cool applause. Not that they’re cold to you. Not at all. But rather that, you know, they do applaud you but they don’t give you the old yelling, screaming, Italian thing. So, you know, which you do get in San Francisco and you get, you know, certainly in New York. And actually in Los Angeles too. So, it’s just a little more conservative. And you know, but you learn to love that about all the different opera houses.
PAPPER: Do you feel you change your way of performing depending on the country that you’re in?
VANESS: Not really. Because my performing is really an essential part of me. It really is myself that I’m giving to the audience. I’m very straightforward and have never been one of those “diva” types where I have to put on one thing here and another thing there. I give my performances from my heart, so I give them exactly what I have.
PAPPER: How about a favorite libretto or a favorite role?
VANESS: Well, any of the da Ponte’s. Così fan tutte. I love to sing Fiordiligi.. Don Giovanni, either part that I’ve sung, I love. I love da Ponte. I think his libretti are incredible. I’m very big on Tosca. I love Tosca.
VANESS: [speaking to a group of people in a large hall or room] Tosca is an opera singer. And it’s one of the first chances we get as opera singers to actually play an opera singer. This situation is, of course, very operatic. She is in love with the tenor. And, but he’s a revolutionary. Tosca arrives right as they’re dragging him down to the dungeon. And her entire life is dedicated, just as mine is, and anyone who is in a musical field or, just as anyone is in everyday life, her life is dedicated to what she does, to her family, to her art, to singing, to love.
[Vaness singing an aria]
VANESS: Those parts fit my temperament, fit my head, fit my desire to give all in acting and singing.
PAPPER: Do you feel that you’ve changed over the years in terms of the roles that you choose, that fit your temperament, like you were saying?
VANESS: Well, yes. I mean, in any case your body would choose that. I mean, it’s like running a record in the same groove. You just can’t keep doing that. You get a big skip in the record and the record doesn’t work well anymore. You have to keep changing parts. No, I don’t enjoy doing the countess in Figaro any more. I find her boring. I love her music. I love to watch other people do it. And I’m really happy that I don’t have to do it. I would rather do Ellettra in Idomeneo, which is always technically and mentally a challenge. You have to go where your voice goes as you get older and you have to go, you know, just where your heart goes.
PAPPER: Do you feel you’ve gained life experience through these characters that you’ve played over and over?
VANESS: [sighs] Oh, I suppose in a way. I mean, it can’t be true life experience, because so much has to happen in a short time. And in real life we don’t have that short of time. Things are drawn out or happen immediately. And you know, in opera, it’s pre-written. Your destiny is there. As the singer you get to see what it is and perform it. So, in that way, no, life experience I’ve gotten from life.
PAPPER: Let’s change tracks a little bit now. What do you think opera’s role is in our world today? And has it changed since you’ve started opera?
VANESS: I think the business has changed. I don’t think that the role of opera has changed. Opera is entertainment. It is just like-it’s a play with music. It’s cathartic for many people. You know, you can go, you can feel, and you can go home and feel transformed. Or you can go and say, “What a great story. I loved it. She jumped off the balcony at the end.” You know, I mean killed herself. There are so many of those kind of things that you read in the paper every day, but just think of it all enhanced with music. Think of that when you’re actually just walking around the streets, how much more interesting it can appear-and that “interesting” is in quotes-if you had music accompanying you. A kind of, it adds a little spice, a little magic to everything. And emotion as well.
[Vaness singing an aria]
PAPPER: Do you feel opera, though, is a dying art? It seems the younger generations don’t really enjoy opera any more.
VANESS: Oh, do you think so? I don’t think that’s true at all. As a matter of fact, I think there are more and more young people going to opera all the time. There are young people’s groups now, there are bravo clubs, there’s this club, that club, for young people. And the audiences are younger than ever. And I really believe the reason for that has been not just television and radio. I mean, it’s been great, but it’s really been the fact that they’ve made it more accessible by making it possible for all the audience to read what each line is about. You can actually read it above the stage, or sometimes on the back of your seat, depending what theater you’re in. And you can, I mean I think that has made a very big difference. So, no, I don’t believe it’s a dying art. I believe it’s a growing art. It’s a changing art.
[Vaness singing an aria and an audience responding with laughter at a line]
VANESS: It changes constantly. Just like everything else. You wouldn’t want to see just the same old ballet all the time. And you know, let’s face it, NYPD Blue changed how they held cameras forever on those shows. If you ever had watched Dragnet, years and years and years ago, it was the same kind of show. But I guarantee that the public while watching it would find it much less exciting and quick-moving, because they, the whole style has changed. And opera has more and more changed its style. It is more exciting. And you gain some things and you lose other things. But one thing for sure, is it’s definitely not dying.
[Vaness singing an aria]
PAPPER: Carol Vaness is an international singer originally from Los Angeles, California. For Common Ground, I’m Hélène Papper.
[Vaness singing an aria]
Our theme music was created by B.J. Leiderman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.
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