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Video Published: 19 Oct 2022

An Oral History with Vinson Cole

On October 5th, 2022, tenor Vinson Cole sat down with OPERA America's President/CEO Marc A. Scorca for a conversation about opera and their life. 

This interview was originally recorded on October 5th, 2022. 
The Oral History Project is supported by the Arthur F. and Alice E. Adams Charitable Foundation. 

Vinson Cole, tenor

Tenor Vinson Cole enjoyed a stage career that brought him to the world’s leading houses, including the Metropolitan Opera, La Scala, San Francisco Opera, the Hamburg State Opera, Covent Garden, and Seattle Opera. He had an especially close working relationship with Herbert von Karajan and is featured on several of the conductor’s recordings. Cole has taught at the New England Conservatory of Music, Cleveland Institute of Music, and University of Missouri, Kansas City, among other institutions.

Oral History Project

Discover the full collection of oral histories at the link below.


Marc A. Scorca: Vinson Cole, thank you so much for being with us today. I start every interview with the question of who brought you to your first opera?

Vinson Cole: My mother brought me to my first opera. I had been heard by a woman at my grandmother's church as a child, and she said he's very talented. And so my mother took me to the opera, and I saw Madame Butterfly at the Kansas City Lyric Opera.

Marc A. Scorca: So in Kansas City?

Vinson Cole: Yes.

Marc A. Scorca: Did you enjoy your first opera? Did it make an impression?

Vinson Cole: I did. It made an impression enough that when they asked me, "We hear that you're a singer. Can you sing for us?" And I sang for them as a little kid. I was nine years old. And for about four years, I did Gherardino in Gianni Schicchi, and I did the little kid in Bohème, (the trumpet, you know), and I did the Shepherd Boy in Tosca.

Marc A. Scorca: And that was when Russell Patterson was running the company?

Vinson Cole: Yes.

Marc A. Scorca: I am always interested in learning how people discover they have talent, or when they realize actually the talent is something they should really nurture. And here someone in church said "The kid's talented". You were a boy soprano, and sang with the opera company, but the voice changes, and it doesn't always change in a happy way. When did someone hear your postpubescent voice, and say, "Vinson, you've got a talent here".

Vinson Cole: I would say the first voice teacher I had was very conscious that, 'I think you might have something'. And unfortunately, he knew that he was not well, and so as he got sicker, he said, "Now look, just do this". And he told me what to do, and what not to do". He said, "Continue to sing, Don't stop"

Marc A. Scorca: Was this high school or college or?

Vinson Cole: No, I was still in grade school.

Marc A. Scorca: Really?

Vinson Cole: Yeah. And he said, "Still continue to sing during this whole time, 'cause I think many boy sopranos...we lose tenors because of that. I think if you continue to sing, you'll be fine". And so he died shortly after that, and then I went to another voice teacher in Kansas City, and he wanted me to quit. He said, "I think you should quit". And I said, "Well, Mr. (Hardin) van Deursen always said, continue to sing". And he said, "Well, I'm not sure". And so I talked to my mother and I said, "What do you think we should do?" And she said, "What do you wanna do?" And I said, "I wanna continue to study". And so she said, "Why don't we go to a student of Mr. van Deursen's?" And so that's what we do. We went to Richard Schumacher, and we went to him and he said, "Oh, I'm so glad you came to me. Mr. van Deursen always talked about you and this is the correct thing to do". And so I continued to sing during the whole - it really wasn't so much of a change, 'cause I just started singing things down. You know, a third or a second or a first, whatever was necessary.

Marc A. Scorca: So you didn't have that pubescent train wreck of the voice change?

Vinson Cole: No, I didn't go 'uh-agh' (makes nasty high-low breaking noise). It went right down the scale and I continued to sing all during that time, and that was the beginning of it.

Marc A. Scorca: So high school continued...

Vinson Cole: High school continued, and as I was in high school, I did Amahl in Amahl and the Night Visitors at my sister's high school, and everything just fit.

Marc A. Scorca: And then college?

Vinson Cole: And then college, yes. It wasn't what I wanted to do with college. I didn't wanna go to the university here, 'cause I had been here for all my life so far. So I wanted to go away. And my mother said, "No, you're gonna stay here and go to school". So I said, "Okay, fine". And, at the end of the day, it's probably the best thing I could have done, was to have stayed here. And I went to school and then the last thing I sang at the Lyric was the Shepherd Boy in Tosca, and the Tosca was a woman named Judith De Paul, who sang at The Met. She's the Frasquita in the Carmen with Marilyn Horne and Bernstein.

Marc A. Scorca: Yep. Early '70's.

Vinson Cole: And she said you should go and study with Margaret Harshaw at Indiana. And I said, "Oh, okay". And so I went to Indiana my sophomore year to do a NATS competition. And so I went, and I met Ms. Harshaw. She scared the death out of me. And I said - because I had met another student of hers, Mary Stribbling, a girl, 'cause they used to have a thing here called Performing Arts Foundation. And they did Medea with Magda Olivero and Bruno Prevedi and just all these old people, and it was just fantastic. And Mary Stribbling was a beautiful, beautiful singer. And so I said, "Where did you study?" She said, "Oh, I studied at Indiana University with Margaret Harshaw". And so anyway, so I met her. And then I didn't go to Curtis until I auditioned at Curtis for my fourth year at UMKC. Yeah. And I auditioned at Curtis and went there and studied with her.

Marc A. Scorca: So you studied with Margaret Harshaw at Curtis?

Vinson Cole: 23 years. Numerous people tried to convince me to go other places. "Why don't you go here? Why don't you go there?" And I said, "No, this works for me".

Marc A. Scorca: It's funny. I would've gotten to it a little bit later in our chat today, but a great singer never stops studying.

Vinson Cole: Well, you can't. I would ask her - I remember she was in her eighties and I said, "How can you still do what you do?" And she said, "Well, I just have to do it. I just do it. I remember how it all goes. I remember what I did. And I take a breath and I make it work. If I ever stop, it's not gonna work for me". She told me one time that she'd gotten a phone call from a church where she had sung in back in the '40's in New York, and they said, "We're having an 80th anniversary and we'd love to have you come and sing the soprano part in Elijah". And she said, "Are you crazy? I don't sing that". He said, "Could you sing the mezzo?" And she said, "No, I won't sing at all. I haven't for years; it just wouldn't work". And he said, "Really?" She goes, "Yes. I could sing the notes, but I couldn't sing it".

Marc A. Scorca: Vinson, what made Margaret Harshaw such a good teacher for you?

Vinson Cole: Oh gosh. I think she understood me. And so that was the biggest thing. We had a really great relationship. And I could talk to her about anything. I could talk to her about people, 'cause I've always been a great listener and listened to way too many... I have a cabinet in there of LP's, and then I have two closets full of CD's. I listened to everybody under the sun. And I felt that I learned from listening and we would sit and we would talk about people and when you have somebody who sang in the '40's, '50's and '60's, even if she wasn't singing as she said, "I wasn't singing in their repertoire, but I would just go and listen to it. And I would hear these things and I would say, Oh my gosh, this is fantastic".

Marc A. Scorca: Now, as an established singer, what is it you continue to study? You're having European debuts - we'll talk about it; you win the Metropolitan Opera National Council Audition - we'll talk more about that. But you're still studying through all of this. What does an established singer continue to study?

Vinson Cole: Well, you continue - 'cause your technique is never perfect...it may be completed, but it's not perfect. You're constantly taking something and saying, "Okay, let me go with that. Let me work on that". And repertoire. We would just work on new things, because I wasn't such an opera singer, but more of a concert singer. I did a lot of concert work. And so, opera would come to me, but things came late to a certain extent. And so I mean, when I sing L'Elisir d'Amore at The Met, that was the very first time I ever did it.

Marc A. Scorca: Oh my word.

Vinson Cole: And I'm thinking, "My God, you're gonna go sing at the Met, L'Elisir d'Amore, and you've never sung it before in your life" and everybody thinks that you probably have, and I said "I haven't".

Marc A. Scorca: You study. Your first engagements were in Europe. How did those come to be?

Vinson Cole: Well, the very first thing they did were in St. Louis. I'd been in Santa Fe for two summers as an apprentice, and Tom Graham heard me sing. And so he engaged me in Angers to sing Acis and Galatea, and also Belmonte in The Abduction (from the Seraglio) at Welsh National Opera. And so those were there. And then I got a fair amount of European engagements. And I loved singing in Europe. I really did. The thing was that I didn't live there, which made it somewhat difficult. But it worked out.

Marc A. Scorca: I should say it worked out. But it's interesting how the apprentice program at Santa Fe was a springboard for you, because of who heard you, and who began to believe in you. When in this sequence did The Met National Council Auditions come?

Vinson Cole: They came right after those two summers. I would audition, of course, when I was a kid, a real kid in Kansas City. And the woman who ran The Met Auditions said, "You know, I'll never let you win". And I said, "Oh, that's okay. I'll save the $10; just use it later on". And so that's what happened. But yeah, I did them in New York. That was the freaky thing, 'cause to be a winner out of New York City was like...

Marc A. Scorca: Sure. And the woman in Kansas City just felt you were too young?

Vinson Cole: Yeah. She just said, "No, no, you can't do that". I said, "Okay".

Marc A. Scorca: What did winning the National Council Auditions do for you? Confidence for sure. What else?

Vinson Cole: I got my manager out of it, at that time, Ann Colbert, which, of course, Richard Gaddes helped with that. And also I got a sense that I was probably a good singer. Even if I wasn't doing opera all the time. And I mean, when I first started a career, I really was doing a lot of orchestra concerts, which I loved. I loved more than anything. And they were very, very important to me. And so that was a great thing to do.

Marc A. Scorca: Now Vinson, you speak very warmly of doing concert work, and of course the literature is fantastic, so as an artist, it's deeply rewarding. Did the concert work help you as an opera singer as well, in terms of musicianship, artistry? How did the concert work help you as an artist?

Vinson Cole: As an artist? The concert work? Well, the music itself. I mean, when you think of singing Beethoven Ninth Symphony, think of singing Beethoven Missa Solemnis, Haydn Creation, Handel Messiah, just all of these pieces that were perfect for my voice. I could sing them at a young age. At 24, 25, 26, I could do all these things, and I could do them comfortably. I did sing Bohème at a very young age at New York City Opera. I did sing Bohème in other places at a young age, and people thought, "That's too soon", and I kind of said, "Well, it may be, but it works for me 'cause I sing it. The thing that Margaret taught me, she said, "Sing with your voice and your voice alone, and don't try and make another voice out of it". And I never ever tried that. And even to this day when I'm vocalizing, I find myself singing with my voice, not trying to do something else with it.

Marc A. Scorca: You mean you haven't become Franco Corelli in your later years?

Vinson Cole: Sometimes I wish I could.

Marc A. Scorca: No you don't; you've such a phenomenal career. When you spoke about singing in Europe, you just filled up with joy. What was different working in Europe from working in the US?

Vinson Cole: Well, all the time I worked there; all my life. I find the Europeans extremely accepting of me, and of what I had to say, and that was fantastic. I never had to worry about...one of my big roles I sang in the States with orchestras was Damnation of Faust, and I did a lot of those in Europe also, and I did a lot of those as operas in Europe. And that was a big challenge for me, because I'd never done Damnation as an opera and having to do them in opera. I did it at Skylight, I did it in Hamburg, I did it in Munich, I did it in Dresden. It was like, "Wow". The best thing about something like that was singing it also with great conductors. That's where I really was lucky, to work with wonderful, wonderful men that just knew how to shape a phrase with you.

Marc A. Scorca: I noted in my research that you worked with von Karajan a lot, and you're talking about musicianship and shaping a phrase. What was it like working with von Karajan?

Vinson Cole: Well, when they say he was God, I can agree with that. He was quite unique. He hired me when I was young, and I think he hired me because he thought, (or he knew: one or the other, I'm not quite sure) that I could do what he wanted. And I was able to do - musically and artistically and vocally, I could do it. And that's the biggest thing for him, is that a singer could do what he wanted and it worked. I never felt ousted, or not in the right place or something. I always felt like, "Wow, this is great".

Marc A. Scorca: Intimidating?

Vinson Cole: No, the only time I was ever intimidated was when we were doing Rosenkavalier, and it was the first night of Rosenkavalier, and I walked out on the stage and I went, "Oh my God, you're a kid from Kansas City, Missouri. You don't know anything, and you are gonna sing this aria for these people here that have heard everybody and their mothers sing it, and they've heard this opera, and this is scary".

Marc A. Scorca: What city was that?

Vinson Cole: That was in Salzburg.

Marc A. Scorca: Oh my God.

Vinson Cole: And also at the Salzburg Festival. And so all these things gelled into one, and I was going, "Oh my God, I can't do this", and it was really fantastic. Really fantastic.

Marc A. Scorca: It's a short role, but it sure sits high.

Vinson Cole: Yes. One of the funniest things is that I didn't realize there were two verses, and so when he hired me, he said, "Okay, what are you doing this summer?" And I said, "Nothing". He said, "No, you're coming to Salzburg", and I said, "Okay, fine". And when I left the audition (at) Carnegie Hall, I went just kind of trolling down the street. I was very excited, and so I got to a phone, and I called my mother, and my mother said, "Are you gonna be on 'The Tonight Show?'" And I said, "No, I'm not gonna be on 'The Tonight Show,' Mother" And she said, "Oh, okay". And so then I called somebody and they said, "So what do you think of that second verse?" I went, "What second verse?" And they said, "The second verse of the Rosenkavalier". And I went, "What?" And I said, "Goodbye". And I ran up to Patelson's, and looked at a score and I said, "Oh, it's only half a verse. Only half a verse, half step higher, and you die". You stop right before you have to sing the high C, so I said, "Okay, I can get a score from the library and xerox this. I don't need to buy the score". It was a great opportunity.

Marc A. Scorca: And you know, I wish younger people today knew what Patelson's was. You mentioned and it had to have been one of my favorite places in New York. Alas, no more.

Vinson Cole: It was. It's like so many things that aren't anymore what they used to be.

Marc A. Scorca: When I look at your repertoire, and I think Mozart and French music as real specialties of yours, what comes to mind is Alfredo Kraus, and I wonder if you have thought about that as a possible vocal point of reference in your head. Did you have any artistic role models or singers who you thought, "You know, I wanna do it sort of that way".

Vinson Cole: Well, I had people that I liked a great deal, vocally very much, and I liked what they did, and I liked what they did artistically. He (Kraus) was one of those people I liked very, very much. The young (Giuseppe) di Stefano was also - even though he was different. He was in the Italian school, but when you listen to him sing Faust, and when you listen to him sing Manon, you say, "Oh my gosh, that's beautiful". He did beautiful things in the Manon that weren't just screamed. He really knew how to sing. Oh gosh, so many people that are just so fortunate.

Marc A. Scorca: Now, Vinson, you sang quite a lot in Seattle, almost a kind of home company for you. And I'm wondering, what is the benefit to a singer to have a company where you go back multiple years, season after season? How does it enrich you to have that kind of relationship with a particular company?

Vinson Cole: Well, I think it's a great opportunity for a singer to figure out exactly what they should be singing. And that is something that I did every year. Every year Speight (Jenkins) would say, "I'd like for you to do this". I never shall forget the year that he asked me, "I want you to sing Don Carlos, in French". And I said, "Oh, Speight, I'm way too young. I can't do that". He said, "Yes, you can", and I said, "No, I can't". He said, "Yes, you can", and he said, "Take the score and go home and work on it". And so I went. I lived right down the street from Speight. So I went home and I pounded it out on the piano. And I said, "Well, it's possible". I said, "I don't know if it's possible for me", you know? And finally I came back and I said, "Okay, I'll do it. But I have to sing it my way". And that was the thing that Margaret was great at. We went through that. We went through everything. We went through Don Jose, and we did it quote, unquote 'my way'.

Marc A. Scorca: Your way. Absolutely.

Vinson Cole: And some people liked it; some people didn't. I said, "I don't care. It's what I can do". What I can do is what I can do.

Marc A. Scorca: So, you're teaching now. Do you enjoy it? What about it do you enjoy? What's frustrating about it? How is it being a teacher now?

Vinson Cole: Being a teacher? Well, I was teaching at the university, and I enjoyed that very much. I ended up leaving because...I don't care if somebody teaches exactly as I do. I don't think anybody teaches alike. I think everybody has a certain little variation, but I think it's gotta be all good. And I think it has to be a sense of - listen to the student, hear what they need, give them what they need, and that's it. So I left. I enjoy very much teaching. I teach freelance people now, and I enjoy working with them. I enjoy working with professional singers who are further ahead than a student in a college, maybe, and it's a real joy. That's what I find. When it goes well, when that suggestion really works for them, and they go, "Wow. Oh yeah, I know what you want and I'm gonna go home and work on it". And I say "Okay, fine, great, and if you have any questions, don't hesitate to call me". And sometimes they do, sometimes they don't. Sometimes they get it. And you know, when they get it, and they get it right, there's nothing more fulfilling.

Marc A. Scorca: Oh, how nice to hear that. In a 2003 interview that you did, you noted that in some of the earlier decades that you and I both know, there were incredible black headline singers. I just spoke at an event for Denyce Graves and her new foundation. And I grew up with Leontyne Price and Martina Arroyo and Shirley Verrett and Grace Bumbry, and we could go on. And then it was Jessye Norman and Kathy Battle and Simon Estes. And we've seen that diminish in years, and almost now seem to see an increase of the number of black artists who are taking leading roles at really important companies, in Europe and here in the United States. What do we need to do, to do better about supporting black singers and singers of color in opera?

Vinson Cole: Well, I think that my situation was very unique. I started very early, and I started in a very professional way, not just singing opera, but just singing. I mean, learning how to sing. Learning - that's the most important thing that I feel that people don't do nowadays. They don't learn the real craft of singing. And I listen to people and I learned from that. I think anytime a singer is approached...to help them to learn. We all have to be open to people, and say, "Okay, let's try this. Try this, this way. Let's try this, that way", and it just happens. But you have to really work at it. And I think that people have to be given this opportunity. I don't think everybody's gonna start at nine years old. I probably wouldn't want everybody to start at nine years old. But, there are certain people that start, however young they may be. I remember when I was a youngster in Philadelphia at Curtis, and coming to New York to do auditions, and I would stay with a friend of mine, Florence Quivar, who was a wonderful mezzo. Maybe was a soprano, who knows? But I heard her sing so much, and I mean vocalizing and everything, and I just learned. I would just listen to her vocalize and I would say, "What do you do up there?" And she would go up to C's, and no problem. And she'd do all the coloratura for Adalgisa and for Rosina and Cenerentola, and I would say, "How do you do that?" 'Cause I was never a very good coloratura singer. Certain things, yes; certain things, no. And she just went like the wind. And so I think that's something that we, as singers today...I've noticed that people don't use their imagination enough. Not that you're going to imagine how you can sing, but you can use the imagination part of your singing on helping you to sing, so that you can be a better musician, to be a better artist - to really make it come to fruition.

Marc A. Scorca: So I hear you saying that the Vinson Cole advice to the young singers who must ask you for it all the time - one is: listen to people. One bit of advice is: use your imagination, not to make up that you're a singer (that's what I do), but to imagine the art you wanna make, to imagine the music that you wanna make as an artist.

Vinson Cole: God, if I didn't imagine that I could sing Rodolfo at 26, I would've never been able to have sung him. But I heard him, in my way. And that's the biggest thing - telling people, it's gotta be in your way. I mean, listening to people can be great, but it can be terrible if you did listen to them in the wrong way. If I had tried to sound like Franco Correli or di Stefano when he was like, (makes forced sound) doing that, I wouldn't have been able to have had the career I had. But I listened and I said, "Okay, now try that now. Try that in this".

Marc A. Scorca: Great advice.

Vinson Cole: It's what we all can do.

Marc A. Scorca: Did I hear you say you still vocalize?

Vinson Cole: God, yes. I mean, I have to if I'm gonna teach, 'cause you really must do it every day, all the time. Be prepared, as if you're gonna sing. I'm not going to, but I still can. I can still do it, but, oh gosh, I don't wanna do that again.

Marc: Well, Vinson, you have been one of the most gracious artists in today's conversation. You are gentle and gracious and generous, and I'm just so happy to have this time with you to record your impressions of what it takes to be the kind of singer you were.