Profile: Lisa Saffer


To listeners inclined to think of soprano Lisa Saffer as one of two “polar” opposites—the “Queen of New Music” or the “Queen of Early Music”—Saffer offers this overly modest corrective: “I consider myself the Queen of Nothing.” Yes, she was renowned for her brilliantly sung, acted, and daringly costumed Lulu. And, yes, she sang Handel’s Cleopatra from Julius Caesar with seductive eloquence and dazzling coloratura. But, the NEC Artist Diploma alumna and faculty member will also remind you that she sang “lots of regional opera, from Donizetti to Mozart to Stravinsky,” that she “first learned Lulu at the same time she was learning Susanna.” And that she “found no technical differences in all of that.”

It is that same versatility—the ability to take on whatever artistic challenge comes along—enabled by a strong technical foundation, hard work, curiosity, familiarity with different musical styles, and passion that she would like to cultivate in her students.

As a graduate student at NEC, where she continued her work of 20 years with the renowned voice teacher Helen Hodam, Saffer was insatiable in her drive to experience the widest possible range of repertory. So, of course, she sang in opera productions—Così fan tutte, L’Enfant et les sortilèges—directed by John Moriarty. She also worked with the legendary pianist Patricia Zander, who talked to her about style and encouraged her to listen to many kinds of music and many performers. And she explored new music under the guidance of composer/conductor John Heiss. She even got involved in the Third Stream department (now known as Contemporary Improvisation), where she was a classmate of another A.D. student, Dominique Eade.

“I was driven not so much to become a big star, but to become excellent,” she recalls, “Of course, part of it was that I was driven to support myself because I had no money. And you had to be really, really good to make a living.”

Excellence and versatility are essential, Saffer insists, because the trajectory of a singer’s career is often the result of “happy accident.” That is, “who you work with, who picks you up and says, ‘I like you,’ and offers you opportunities.” In her case, there were two influential musicians with whom she had an ongoing relationship: the composer/conductor Oliver Knussen, and the early music conductor Nicholas McGegan. With Knussen, she sang his music such as Where the Wild Things Are and Four Whitman Songs, as well as Britten’s Rape of Lucretia, which Knussen conducted. With McGegan, she performed and recorded Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus, Radamisto, Ottone, and other works. But whether it was new music or Baroque repertory, she found there “was something similar in those two poles. Both are very much about rhythm, articulation, and a certain clean sound which my sound was suited for. My voice was not suited to Puccini, and my sensibilities—at least back then—didn’t go that way either.”


Now, as a teacher, what she wants for her students is, initially, to help them “solidify their technique so they can go on and express themselves safely.” That’s hugely important and urgent because young singers start so much later than, say, string players or pianists, who come to conservatory training with their technique more or less fully developed. In very short order, singers must master the fundamentals of vocal production as well as study repertoire, movement, acting, languages. At the same time, though, Saffer is insistent that her students learn style, about translating the notes on the score in the context of the style in which they were written.

Both of these concerns are evident in a lesson with Saffer’s freshman student Chelsea Fingal. They begin, of course, with warm-up exercises. There are lip trills, then hums, which open up into vowel sounds and move progressively up the scale. Periodically, Saffer will move away from the piano keyboard to the student, placing her hands on diaphragm and back to check the singer’s breathing. Once she rubs her thumbs up and down Chelsea’s cheeks to relax muscle tension. The student’s voice begins to bloom as she warms up. Then, teacher and student get to work on a Bellini song.

“I’m really, really interested in phrasing,” Saffer says. “I’m really interested in how a composer has chosen to write a phrase in order to express the words. Most young singers have a hard time thinking about these things because they are working so hard on producing the sound. As a result, many tend to sing vertically—note, note, note, note, note.” Saffer wants them to connect those notes, “to know where the phrase is going and why it’s going there. It’s often about the language, which the undergrads usually don’t really know yet. It’s one of the things I tiresomely talk about.”

With Chelsea, Saffer zeros in on a florid cadenza in the Bellini song. She points out the straightforward notation of notes, but counsels that in singing the line, “you must feel freer and more plastic. You must shape the phrase. In this style, it’s all about proportion. The music has a lot of freedom but also is fundamentally about balance.” As the student quickly responds, the improvement immediately apparent, Saffer is ebullient: “Good, Yes, good, good, good, good! Some very good things.”

Saffer expects her students to be a “full partner” with her in their education. “I demand that they explore repertory. If they bring something to me, I’ll tell them if it’s something they can do. If it’s something they love and it’s appropriate for them, I want to make it possible for them to explore that.”

Among her more adventurous students is senior Nina Guo, who during her time at NEC has found her passion in contemporary repertory. Indeed, within a short few weeks in February and March, Guo was scheduled to sing Christian Wolff’s Microexercises with Stephen Drury’s Callithumpian Consort, Ligeti’s Aventures on one of John Heiss's Contemporary Ensemble programs, excerpts from Harrison Birtwistle’s Nine Settings of Lorine Niedecker and Luciano Berio’s Sequenza III for solo voice, written for the extraordinary 20th-century diva Cathy Berberian. On her promotional recital, she planned a program of music by Monteverdi, Kurtág, Scelsi, Messiaen, Berio, and other 20th- and 21st-century composers.

Describing Guo as a “dogged, tireless worker,” Saffer listened to her student’s dazzling account of the Berio. Unaccompanied, the piece does have a text, but one in which the words often are submerged in a dizzying babel of sounds—tongue trills, hums, yips, sighs, barks, hysterical laughter, teeth chattering. It’s an extraordinary piece of music theatre, and Guo carries it off with panache. Saffer admits that there is very little more she can offer as guidance. Nonetheless, she counsels Guo to really enunciate the words in the few segments where the text is less obscured by the sound effects. “Really let us have it, so it’s accessible,” she says. Both student and teacher agree that a coach or new music person might “want [Guo] to be extremely crazy” in the performance. But Guo says “I’m trying to actually sing it.” And Saffer agrees: “You are singing it and that makes it much more interesting than if it’s only vocal effects.”

Beyond their specific vocal training, Saffer wants her students to imbibe all the music they can at NEC. She recalls hanging out with brass players during her student years. “All we did was talk about music. For me, there was this amazing explosion and exploration of music. And I so desire that for my students.”

Find out more about Lisa Saffer.

Photo of Lisa Saffer teaching a lesson by Andrew Hurlbut; portrait of Lisa Saffer by Henry Fair