Tenor Norman Paige has performed with the Cologne Civic Opera; New York City Opera; Chicago Lyric Opera; Metropolitan Opera National Company; Teatro Deliceo in Barcelona; and the Vienna State Opera.
Paige has been a member of the KU faculty for 26 years. He has lectured at numerous doctoral seminars and has taught courses in German and English diction. He has extensive experience in music theater and a wide knowledge of opera lore and renowned singers of the past 180 years. Paige also sings duo recitals with his wife, Inci Bashar Paige, mezzo-soprano.
“A Paige of Music:” An Interview with Norman Paige
On a warm spring afternoon, I had the privilege of interviewing Norman Paige, Professor Emeritus of Voice at the University of Kansas, in the beautiful home that he shares with his wife, Inci Bashar.
Ann Marie Snook: Professor Paige, I understand that Paige is not your given name. Can you tell us how you came to adopt “ Paige?”
Professor Paige: Well, my given name is Norman Seltzer, but my grandfather's family came from Budapest -- and the name was ‘Salzer’ there, which is actually a germanic name. But when they got to Ellis Island, the immigration officer suggested changing it to ‘Seltzer’ thinking it would be more easily pronounceable. I never thought of changing it until I got a job when I was 15 as a page at NBC. I was still in high school. I was working there every afternoon from 4:00 until 8:00 at night, part-time. And one day I was answering the phone and I said, "Fourth floor page speaking," meaning that I was a page, and they thought I was saying my name. I thought about it and I said, "you know, if I'm going to choose a professional name…” At that time I didn't know what I was going to do in show biz, but I knew I was going to do something. I decided to use that as my name. It was just a spontaneous choice. And later on when I started my profession, which I did in Gilbert and Sullivan,with a company in New York called the Mask and Lyre Light Opera Company, I used my nickname Buddy, that's what everybody called me at home. I used the name Buddy Paige, and I was doing chorus and singing the lyric tenor roles in the matinees. And the director said, "You know, Buddy, it's not exactly right for somebody doing Nanki Poo or Frederic in the Pirates, so why don't you use your real first name," which was Norman. And that's how Norman Paige came about. I never changed it legally but I've used it for — 55 years!
A.M.: Prior to your coming to the University of Kansas, you had a major career as a character tenor. I believe that you made your debut in 1967 in the New York City Opera as Beppe in I Pagliacci. Can you share some of your recollections about your early career?
Professor Paige: Before I sang with the New York City Opera, I had done some choral singing with the Robert Shaw Chorale. I was at Juilliard at this point. I entered Juilliard after two years at New York University, and when I decided after having had some private voice lessons that I, indeed, wanted to pursue some kind of singing career, I switched to Juilliard and I was accepted. Robert Shaw was the choral director there, along with Elaine Brown. There were some auditions that he held in the school looking for people to sing in the Toscanini broadcast in the chorus of Aida, for instance. He (Robert Shaw) also auditioned people for Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony performance with the NBC symphony. And then he needed singers for a recording that RCA Victor did of Schubert songs for men's chorus, which included on it that wonderful serenade for mezzo-soprano and men's chorus. So I was in a professional recording in the chorus. I sang for an agent in New York named William Stein who was quite well-known at that time. And this was in, I believe, 1957. I was in my mid-twenties. And he said to me, "Have you thought of starting a career in Europe, either in Germany or Austria?" I said, "Why not?" He said, "Well, this is what you would need." He arranged for an audition for me that same week for a German agent who was in Düsseldorf. His name was Friederich Pasch. So, I sang for him, and he also concurred and said, "If you come to Germany, I will sponsor an audition trip for you. I'm pretty sure you can get a job." At that point I was singing as a lyric tenor. I didn't know about character tenor. And so in 1958, I bought a ticket on Holland American Line.. Somebody said, "If you volunteer to sing a recital, they will make some kind of arrangement where you only pay half price." And sure enough, that's what they did. I sang one 45-minute concert, mostly American musical theater things. I arrived in Rotterdam and I took the train from Rotterdam to Dhsseldorf. And about five days later I had contacted Friederich Pasch. He arranged for me to audition for the general manager of the opera in Linz, Austria. I auditioned, and this man showed interest and he said, "I would like you to come to Linz. I will pay for your round-trip airfare and hotel. I would like for you to sing for the general music director and other people."
And, anyway, I went to Linz and I auditioned. They were particularly looking for a Rodolfo for La Bohème. They had a tenor with a beautiful voice, but he didn't have a high C. So they were very interested in me singing the aria of Rodolfo which I memorized in German because they were doing it in German. And I — I didn't know it was anything special. I had a high C. They made me sing the aria four times. Each time they were calling somebody else down to listen. Then they offered me a two-year contract to sing mostly lyric tenor roles, but they also wanted me to do Beppe in I Pagliacci, which is a lyric character tenor. I started in Linz in the middle of the season, in December, because this audition trip was in November, and I immediately sang Rodolfo in German.
A.M.: So you were hired immediately off of your audition tour?
Professor Paige: Yes!
A.M.: Do you think that it was your ability to execute the high C's over and over that drew their attention to you?
Professor Paige: It didn't hurt. They said they liked my voice very much and I sang - what did I sing for them? I sang Rodolfo, and I sang the aria of Ferrando from Cosi fan Tutte. They had me rehearsing immediately for La Bohème which they put me in within ten days because I had already done it in New York, in Italian in an opera workshop called the Amato Opera.
A.M.: So you had to relearn the whole role in German?
Professor Paige: In German. When you're 27, you can do it. And then the second role they wanted me for was a premier they were doing of Richard Strauss’ Opera Arabella. And there's a very difficult tenor role — there were several tenor roles, but there's one named Matteo, and they gave me that part.
And we opened the season with Arabella. It was a difficult part but I didn't know the difference, you know. We had a very international cast. Our Arabella was a soprano from Bulgaria; our Mandryka, the baritone role, was a baritone from Slovakia; an American tenor as Matteo; a Swiss/French soprano as Fiakermilli; a German baritone in one other role, a soprano from Columbia as Zdenka. It was a truly international cast, and it got the attention of the Viennese press. It hadn't ever been performed in Linz, or maybe had been done 30 years before, before the war. But the fact that it had an international cast was a great interest to these newspaper writers; I was very fortunate. I got a good review. And after that I sang Ferrando in Cosi.
A.M.: How many seasons were you there?
Professor Paige: I was there for three years which means each year they gave me a six-week paid vacation, and the rest of the time I was singing. I sang Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly. I sang the lead tenor role in an opera called Notre Dame, based on the Hunchback of Notre Dame. And then I sang Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni. I did a role in The Gypsy Baron. I sang Rosillon in The Merry Widow. A lot of famous people were singing in Linz even though it was not an A-house . It was what they called a B-house. The end of the last season, the general music director left and got a job with the opera in Frankfurt. And then there was a new intendant that was hired and I decided to look and see if I could move someplace else. So I went — somebody arranged an audition for me in Vienna for the general music director of the Cologne Opera, Wolfang Sawallisch, who has been the director of the Philadelphia Orchestra for ten years. I sang for him in his dressing room in Vienna. He was the conductor of the Vienna Symphony, not the Philharmonic , and he showed some interest. He said, "We would like you to come to Cologne and sing for the intendant.” I had another agent by this time. He arranged for me to sing in three other houses before I got to Cologne. Now, in Cologne I was singing a role as a character tenor, Pedrillo in Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio. And instead of Pinkerton it was Goro, but there were some other very interesting parts that I did, such as the Prince in Prokofiev’s The Love for Three Oranges. Eventually, I got a four-year contract, in Cologne, and I met a wonderful group of singers there. My time in Cologne was just like a dream. They gave me wonderful parts. I was very much appreciated, and that is where I met Inci, my wife, who had already made her debut with the newly formed Istanbul Opera and sang some wonderful parts. She had sung Maddelena in Rigoletto and the Mother in The Consul by Menotti. And then after two years, she decided to audition in Germany. She was hired by Cologne, the year after I came.
A.M.: This was about 1961.
Professor Paige: Just about then. I came in '61 and I think she came in '62. And we were in many operas together and we eventually became romantically involved and we got married in Cologne and our daughter was born in Cologne. And Inci by this time had left Cologne and was singing Carmen in Oldenburg and doing guest appearances in other places. And so just about in 1964 it was announced that the Metropolitan Opera was forming a special touring company. It was called the Metropolitan Opera National Company, and they were looking to give work to experienced young singers, most of whom had been singing in Europe. They came to Düsseldorf, and those of us in Cologne who were interested went and auditioned for the music director, Robert Lamarchina . They were interested in me, and wanted to know if I was going to be in New York at all in the next few months. And just by coincidence I had signed a contract with a company in Chicago called the Cramer Opera Company to tour for four weeks as Count Almaviva in The Barber of Seville. So I started in Chicago. I auditioned for the Chicago Lyric Opera that week thinking, you know, who knows what's going to happen? And I also auditioned for Risn Stevens in New York at Hunter College for this national company. And I immediately got a two-year contract. My debut role was the Prince in Rossini’s Cinderella. I did also character roles. I did Goro in Madama Butterfly. I did one of the smugglers in Carmen. I sang the male chorous in Brittens’s The Rape of Lucretia,a great role. The company only lasted two years. It was overbudgeted.
A.M.: Do you have any favorite roles?
Professor Paige: Among the lyric roles, I certainly always loved singing Rodolfo. I don't think with my voice that I could have sung it in a really big house. Linz was only 800 seats, you know. I love singing Ferrando in Cosi fan Tutte and I love doing Don Ottavio. I love doing Beppe. I sang that at my debut with Placido Domingo at the New York City Opera, with Domingo singing Canio. Domingo was very young, probably 26 years old. I was in the New York City Opera for three-and-a-half seasons. They had seasons that were in the fall and in the spring. I was married. We had a child. The salary was unbelievably low. We barely made it. So I became what they called an Affiliate Artist. I don't if that exists any more, but it was an association where they placed performers, not just singers on college campuses. I was assigned to Muhlenberg College, a college in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and I was appearing as a guest singer. I was also doing some teaching in the music classes. I did some roles. Canio in Pagliacci; Rinuccio in Gianni Schicchi. So between the New York City Opera and that job, and Inci was working part-time, we managed. Then Inci went back to Germany and sang with the Dortmund Opera, and after that I left the New York City Opera. When the national company was touring all over the country and we knew there was not going to be a third season, I auditioned for San Francisco; Houston; Dallas; Boston. I had already auditioned for Chicago; Seattle, and Portland. I got jobs in all those companies. Isn't that amazing? And that was really good because that kept me busy for many years in all the places I just mentioned. And then Chicago was a very important debut. I made my debut there as Reverend Adams in Peter Grimes by Benjamin Britten. I sang at the Chicago Lyric Opera off and on from 1969-1983. I sang a role in Don Quichotte, by Massenet, one of the lovers of Dulcinée. I sang Doctor Caius in Falstaff with Geraint Evans and Luigi Alva, and I sang with Jon Vickers in Peter Grimes. I sang Guillot in Manon with Alfredo Kraus, and Goro in Madama Butterfly with several Butterflies, because it was revived over several seasons, and Gaston in Traviata with Montserrat Caballé and Nicolai Gedda.
A.M.: In your opinion, is the art of singing a mystery? How have you maintained your voice for a 50 plus year career?
Professor Paige: That is a good question. I was never a perfect singer. I had certain tendencies. I liked to sing my upper register with a little bit too much chest voice and not enough cushion. I think I was fairly smart in that if I did that for a while I used to rest for three or four days. I never got in trouble vocally except very early in my career. After doing a tour of Gilbert and Sullivan and a summer of musical theater, there was some way I was singing that was not healthy. I went to a Doctor Rexford who was very well known in New York at that time. He looked at my throat and he said “tsk, tsk..” I said, "What's wrong?" He said, "You have two pinpoint nodules." I said, "Are they cancerous?" He said, "No." I said, So why are you going “tsk,tsk?" He said, "Well, for a singer, this is very serious. We can suggest things. We can either remove them surgically or you can shut up for two months." I chose to shut up. They went away after three weeks. And after that, any time I felt anything that felt strange, I would shut up for a couple of days. So I think that I had enough good instincts. I don't want this to sound too snobbish — so that I — I managed to keep my voice fresh. My voice right now — you know, I'm 74. I may not have the ease on a high C that I once did but I still have it, you know. And, of course, my working with Inci has been very helpful, too. Because every once in a while we have a voice lesson. And she's kind of a genius in my opinion I think that singing the right repertoire is important. If I had tried to sing heavier roles than my throat was ready for, I think I could have gotten into some bad trouble.
A.M.: Do you feel the quality of singing has improved or declined since you entered the business?
Professor Paige: If I think back to the 1950's and 60's when I was just starting to sing myself and the people I admired who were singing, I think the quality has gone down. But there are always individuals who stand out in any 10-year period who are very good. I think maybe there were more exceptional singers 40 years ago than there are now. I remember listening to the Met Broadcasts when I was seven—performances that just knocked me out: Kirsten Flagstad, Melchior, Lily Pons, Bidu Sayao,Nicolai Gedda. Now, he just stopped singing about five years ago. There are very good singers now but— in my opinion, they're not quite as many as there were then. Why is that? I don't know if you agree with me.
A.M.: I do agree with you.
Professor Paige: Does it have to do with the way people are singing technically or—
A.M.: Too much cross-over singing perhaps?
Professor Paige: Maybe. That could be.
A.M.: Or maybe, like you said, taking on a role too early in their career which is going to hamper the voice down the road.
Professor Paige: When I think about some of the great Wagnerian singers that I was aware of, they never had vocal crises. Flagstad never had any. Traubel stopped singing in her 50's. She had always had problems with the high C but the voice was absolutely gorgeous. Melchior never had any problems. He sang until he was over 70. Lily Pons had – not everybody liked her voice, but she had a very long career. She sang well into her late '60's. Roberta Peters had a very long career. Robert Merrill is still singing well into his eighties!
A.M.: You had a 33 year teaching career at the University of Kansas. Can you mention some of the highlights of your years there?
Professor Paige: Well, let me think. When I first came, it was a voice department. Later on they reorganized as a division. And the chairman was a bass named Kenneth Smith, with whom Inci had sung with in Lindsborg. They had done Bach and Handel: They worked together before I ever met him. And then he was chairman at KU. He and the voice faculty hired me, and he made me always feel very good. He was a very fine human being. And so he was chairman and when he stopped being chair, I held the position for ten years. After ten years I gave it up and then Phyllis Brill became chairman, and then John Stephens came along. And he's a very special human being. Was he there when you were there?
Professor Paige: And he has been chairman for at least ten years now. So the atmosphere in the voice faculty at K.U. has always been very positive. I was very fortunate because the people that retired and the people that replaced them, by and large, were in that mold, very honest workers, good — not great necessarily, but good voice teachers with their students’ progress always put first, not the ego of the teacher. And so the 33 years — well of course of that 33, for over 15 of them I was off-campus each semester up to six weeks a year. I had to make up lessons but I was gone and performing and getting a lot of recognition.
A.M.: And bringing recognition to the University as well because of your connection there.
Professor Paige: Perhaps. And then, of course, I had students like you. I had very, very fine students all with good motivation, healthy voices, and who worked, I think, quite well in the studio.
A.M.: Many people know that you are married to Inci Bashar, an exquisite singer and an exquisite person. Can you tell us about your singing and teaching collaborations with your wife?
Professor Paige: Well, you know, we got to know each other in Germany and our wedding in Cologne was in front of a Justice of the Peace. Inci’s mother and father came from Istanbul, and that's when I met them. This was in 1964. We lived in New York from 1965-69. After that, we moved from New York to Kansas. We had decided to settle someplace in the United States and have a family life. By this time our daughter was four or four-and-a-half. Then, I got offered this teaching job at K.U. So we moved to Lawrence and got a very nice apartment and we started teaching voice and giving joint recitals, every year a different program. I taught studio voice, German and English Diction for singers, German Song, Doctoral seminars, and a course in the evening with James Seaver, “Great Singers,” which attracted many new music majors. And we did that for over 30 years. Inci taught several semesters at K.U., and then she got a job teaching at U.M.K.C. approximately ten or 11 years after we started in Lawrence. She taught there for 20 years and set a very high standard with her teaching. Many of her students are singing with major opera companies in Europe and the United States.
A.M.: Is there anything you haven't yet done that you are yearning to do?
Professor Paige: What else, let me think. I have a very nice family. I have one sister, and she just turned 80. And I discovered that one of my granddaughters, the younger one, has a very lovely voice. I love books. This house is full of books. I read biographies and books on history. I notice that as I've gotten older it is harder for me to concentrate and stay with a book very long. I keep buying books all the time. I just rejoined the "Book of the Month Club" which is an insanity because – most of the time, I'm going to be sending the “do not send” form back — But I really love books. And when I pass on I plan to give most of them to my daughter and granddaughters. Some of them I will leave to K.U.
I really admire Dr. James Seaver, who is a retired history professor. And as you know, he has a Friday evening radio show on opera. He's got an enormous collection of operatic recordings, some of which now reside in the K.U. music library. When we stopped teaching the “Great Singers” class, he gave me tapes we used in the course. So I have all these tapes of singers going back to before the turn of the century. Some of them have very primitive sound but some of them are fabulous.
I love singing concerts. I love doing recitals of song and opera selections, and I have done a lot of those with Inci with piano and with orchestra. These two little bands in your throat, as you know, can dictate the whole course of your life; not always ideally, but in my case, I have to say mostly with great pleasure. Well, I have run out of things to say.
A.M.: Thank you, Norman. This has been absolutely enlightening.
Ann Marie Snook received the Doctor of Musical Arts degree from the University of Kansas., where she was a student of Norman Paige. Dr. Snook is an Assistant Professor of Music at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas.