Maestro Kurt Klippstatter and Mezzo Mignon Dunn Base Their Marriage on Non-Togetherness
We’re the original ‘Odd Couple,’ Dunn insists
She is a mezzo-soprano with a Tennessee drawl, a booming laugh and such admiration for country music she sees herself as “an operatic Loretta Lynn.” Her husband is conductor and musical director of the not-quite-legendary Arkansas Symphony Orchestra. Together, they sound like a couple whose careers in classical music might peak at a Tuesday night fund raiser for Muscle Shoals.
Yet Mignon Dunn and Kurt Klippstatter—except for the Richard Bonynge-Joan Sutherland pairing—are the most celebrated conductor-diva couple in opera. They are, moreover, by mutual consent not a team. The italics are theirs; when they married seven years ago, they foreswore pit-and-stage togetherness in order to build separate reputations. Dunn, 47, a sturdy 5’9″ brunette best known for her femme fatale roles at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, explains, “We have to fly all over the world to see each other. We’re just gypsies.” (They are actually never apart longer than a month.)
The Memphis-born singer is currently in Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde with the Lyric Opera of Chicago while her Austrian husband, 41, commutes between Little Rock and Hartt College of Music in Hartford, Conn., where he conducts and teaches.
Six weeks ago, however, they broke their own rule, meeting in Detroit for three performances of Tchaikovsky’s Joan of Arc with the Michigan Opera Theatre. It was the first major U.S. production of the work.
Even as a belle of 18, when she was discovered by Metropolitan Opera conductor Max Rudolf and began studying under a Met scholarship, Mignon dreamed of singing Tchaikovsky’s Joan. Her husband was a natural to conduct it, she says: “Kurt is fiery—controlled fiery—like the opera.”
Dunn jokes that the role so moved her that “it nearly made me a Catholic.” Detroit critics praised her power and conviction and Klippstatter’s “full-bodied” reading. Several other U.S. companies are already thinking of staging Joan. Mignon’s pal Beverly Sills, now general director of the New York City Opera, hopes to produce it in 1982.
The couple’s joint success in Detroit occurred amidst surprising calm. Klippstatter’s temperament didn’t erupt at rehearsals “nearly enough,” he laughs. Dunn says, “I love working with him, but I don’t get any special treatment. He halfway ignores me, because we’ve worked out all the music at home.
“Kurt is a complicated, brilliant man,” his wife adds. “But behind that solemn exterior is an unbelievable sense of humor. I may go up the wall occasionally, but become bored? No. He has had an incredible influence on my life. I’m very hung up on him.”
Dunn is a true child of the South. After her father died when she was 7, her mother, Christine, operated the family’s 3,000-acre cotton plantation between Marked Tree and Tyronza, Ark. The youngest of three girls, Mignon grew up listening to black nursemaids sing Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, Shortnin’ Bread and the blues in a style that still tinges her operatic delivery. (“The reason mezzos sing so many unhappy songs in opera,” she explains, “is because they’re always in love with the tenors.”) Mignon was introduced early to the Met’s Saturday matinee radio broadcasts, and when, at 10, she saw her first opera, Carmen, in Memphis she said, “That’s for me.” After her Met scholarship she worked for 10 years in New York, singing in a Yorkville beer hall and working as an airport tour guide. (She was turned down for the Radio City Music Hall chorus.) She made her debut at the Met in Boris Godunov in 1958. It coincided with the end of her three-year marriage to an aeronautical engineer who had operatic aspirations. Her career soared after she sang Azucena in II Trovatore. Veteran Met consultant Francis Robinson says, “You can’t find anybody that would have anything but praise for Mignon. She knows right from wrong, and you never hear her bitch.”
Klippstatter, son of a provincial Austrian pharmacist, conducted the opera in Krefeld, West Germany, led orchestras in Austria and Holland and served as voice coach for the Salzburg Festival and the Vienna State Opera. He and an operetta singer were divorced after six years of marriage. He was coaching in Düsseldorf in 1968 when Mignon sought his help in operetta technique before singing The Gypsy Baron.
Though already signed by the Met, she was taking major roles in European opera houses to build her reputation. In one Italian production, she recalls, she was onstage when a horse fell into the orchestra pit. “Thank heavens I wasn’t riding him.”
The last thing she expected in Europe was a romance “because I was deeply involved with somebody else.” She and Klippstatter went for mussels one evening after a performance. Months later, when she met him again in Europe, “It hit me like a ton of bricks that I had missed him so much. It wasn’t normal for me.” After a long-distance courtship, they were married in July 1972 in Waukegan, Ill.
Klippstatter remained in the U.S. to enhance his career. He was musical director of the Memphis Opera Theatre before taking over the Arkansas Symphony, a semi-pro group the Washington Post has called “truly fine.” Since then he has had seven guest performances with the New York City Opera.
The couple maintains three residences—an apartment in Manhattan and houses in Little Rock and Memphis. When they are in Arkansas, they intersperse practice sessions with horseback riding and shopping for art and antiques without undue public attention. An excellent cook, Dunn has been known to whip up 300 stuffed crepes or giant pots of Hungarian goulash for the entire 80-chair orchestra.
They’ve never had children—too busy, they explain. Long ago they agreed never to be jealous. “With a long-leash arrangement,” she says, “you simply have to trust.” Still, they quarrel occasionally, “only over very little, stupid things,” says Mignon, “something I’ve forgotten or should have done—I’m rather harum-scarum.” She is the sloppy Oscar to Kurt’s fastidious Felix, and she admits blandly, “In Israel, security guards at my hotel met me after a performance to tell me to check my belongings because all my drawers were open and clothes were all over the place.” There was no burglary; it was how her room usually looked. Though she regards herself as a liberated woman, Mignon goes along with Kurt’s European conviction that a wife should pick up her husband’s clothes. “I do it,” she says, “because it amuses me.”