January 25th, 2015
In March 2014, the Board of Directors of the San Diego Opera announced that the company would cease operations, just short of its 50th anniversary. The community uproar that greeted the pronouncement resulted in the resignation of much of the board, and its replacement by a new board dedicated to resolving the company’s financial issues and continuing to mount operas in the spirit of “the show must go on”.
I suspect that a routine performance of Puccini’s “La Boheme” would have been greeted with relief and good cheer in San Diego, as proof that San Diegans can pull together when some community asset is threatened.
[Below: Rodolfo (Harold Meers, left) and Mimi (Alyson Cambridge, right) are reconciled; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]
Many in the community who had never before seen an opera would have, perhaps as a matter of civic pride, turned out for what is by many measures the most popular of all operas. Four performances were offered and two had already been sold out.
But it proved especially felicitous that not only did the company survive a near-death experience to produce a production of “Boheme”, they were able to secure one of the great productions of “Boheme” currently in existence to launch their 50th anniversary season.
[Below:Rodolfo (left, bottom of stairs) has rushed to the aid of the dying Mimi (Alyson Cambridge, bottom right, as Musetta (Sara Gartland, top of stairs) and the Bohemian men look on; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]
Notes on the Physical Production
In 2009, British director Jonathan Miller, in close collaboration with British Set and Costume Designer Isabella Bywater, created a new production of Puccini’s “La Boheme” for London’s English National Opera and the Cincinnati Opera.
The production has proved be one of the London theater scene’s durable hits, having been revived several times at ENO’s venerable Coliseum.
[Below: the landlord Benoit (Scott Sikon, seated, second from right) who has come to collect rent for the Bohemians second floor flat, is plied with wine by Schaunard (Malcolm MacKenzie, left), Colline (Christian Van Horn, second from left), Rodolfo (Harold Meers, standing, center) and Marcello (Morgan Smith, right); edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]
As with Miller’s older staging of Puccini’s popular work, still frequently performed at the Opera National de Paris [for my review, see Opéra National de Paris: Très Magnifique La Boheme at the Bastille, October 21, 2005], Miller and Bywater moved the story from the time of France’s July Monarchy to the 1930s, when Pablo Picasso and artists of his generation might well have frequented the Bohemians’ Café Momus. It was Bywater who staged the San Diego performances of the production.
Changing the time to the 1930s allows the production to evoke a specific vision of what a Parisian “Bohemian” neighborhood would have felt like eight decades ago. Photographs from the 1930s were used, but those who spend time in the contemporary neighborhoods of central Paris should find much that seems familiar as well.
[Below: Mimi (Alyson Cambridge) is shocked to overhear a conversation that she is obviously dying from her illness; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]
The production is organized around two movable sets, each with three sides, so that stagehands (costumed as depression-era Parisians) move between a the Bohemian men’s two room upper story flat (with staircase leading to the upper floor) to the second act Cafe Momus, and, after an intermission, to the third act tavern in which the painter Marcello is working, then back to the Bohemians flat.
Nothing about the production is casual. Every costume, be it for a principal cast member, adult or children’s chorister, “extra” or stagehand is carefully conceived. Everyone on stage has learned what posture and gesture is appropriate to each moment their character is present in the mise-en-scène.
An operatic production that achieves such reality in the visual look of the actor-singers, sets, costumes, and staging, I refer to as cinematic.
Director Bywater obviously directed from the production’s original playbook, are seeing a version of this show that audiences on both sides of the Atlantic have taken to heart.
[Below: Splurging on a meal at the Cafe Momus are Marcello (Morgan Smith, at table, left), Rodolfo (Harold Meers, second from left), Mimi (Alyson Cambridge, center), Schaunard (Malcolm MacKenzie, second from right) and Colline (Christian Van Horn); edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]
A Meaningful Merger of Music and Drama
Opera merges two performance styles – telling a story through singing, and telling a story dramatic acting. Because operatic singing is in itself a special skill, as physically demanding as athletic endeavors, there have been times and places where opera companies have neglected or at least compromised on the requirement that opera singers be good actors as well as accomplished musicians.
No such compromises were made in the San Diego performances. The young lovers Mimi (Alyson Cambridge) and Rodolfo (Harold Meers) were visually and dramatically believable.
[Below: Rodolfo (Harold Meers, standing) has fallen for Mimi (Alyson Cambridge, seated); edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]
Rodolfo’s impoverished, but resourceful roommates Marcello (Morgan Smith), Schaunard (Malcolm MacKenzie) and the intellectual Colline (Christian Van Horn) showed abundant spirit in the lively high-jinx that composer, librettist and stage director had assigned them (including the hilarious pas de quatre parody on Tchaikovsky’s ballet “Swan Lake” that is one of the most famous sight–gags of this production.
The role of Rodolfo lies at the cusp of the lighter lyric and weightier spinto operatic repertories. Meers’ voice is on the lyric side, but this helped give his Rodolfo a sense of youthfulness, a young artist less experienced in affairs of the heart than some of his Bohemian brethren.
Casting singers that looked and acted their parts was not at the expense of the vocal performances. Alyson Cambridge has a large voice, that elegantly matched Morgan Smith’s sturdy baritone in the great third act duet between Marcello and Mimi and was affecting in Mimi’s fourth act death scene.
[Below: Marcello (Morgan Smith, right) and Musetta (Sara Garland, in red dress) fight as the reconciled Rodolfo (Harold Meers, left) and Mimi (Alyson Cambridge, second from left) hold hands; edite dimage, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]
Sara Gartland’s Musetta, dashed off her waltz number – Quando men vo – probably the best known melody from the melody-rich opera brilliantly.
[Below Musetta (Sara Garland, center, with upraised arm) seeks to gain the attention of her former lover, Marcello (Morgan Smith, right); edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]
Christian Van Horn, who has become invaluable to American companies in a wide range of basso roles, delivered his eulogy to a favorite coat that he will pawn with dignity and eloquence. Malcolm MacKenzie, always dependable in the lyric baritone roles, was in fine voice as Schaunard, displaying the range of emotions that affect his character in the opera’s moments of joy and grief.
There are many other noteworthy details, such as Scott Sikon’s amusing appearances in the roles of the easily befuddled landlord Benoit and Musetta’s disrespected rich patron, Alcindoro. An eyecatching feature is costuming the toy-seller Parpignol as a Charlie Chaplin lookalike.
Karen Keltner conducted, in what she has announced is her final assignment with the San Diego Opera. Her association with the San Diego Opera over a 35 year period includes 150 performances of 40 operas, a record that no other conductor is likely to achieve.
I recommend this production and cast enthusiastically, both for the veteran opera-goer and the person new to opera.
Tags: 2005-2015: William's Reviews
January 19th, 2015
Note from William: this continues my series of “end of the year” thoughts on the live performance of opera.
My “Thoughts and Assessments” series began at the end of calendar year 2009. Each year since then I’ve discussed a variety of subjects, including the role of philanthropy in opera, the casual destruction by opera companies of operatic productions and costumes that I believe should be considered world treasures, and my thoughts on the composition of the standard operatic repertory.
Within a few days, I will begin a typically full schedule of 2015 performance reviews, I am posting my end of the year thoughts for 2014 before the new series of reviews began.
[Below: Queen Elizabeth I (Sondra Radvanovsky, above) threatens to strike Roberto Devereux (Leonardo Capalbo, below; edited image, based on a Michael Cooper photograph, courtesy of the Canadian Opera Company, Toronto.]
[For my performance review, see: Sondra Radvanovsky’s Astounding Virgin Queen in Donizetti’s “Roberto Devereux” – Canadian Opera Company, Toronto, April 25, 2014.]
The depth of talent currently available to North American companies
When, as a young teenager, I first started attending opera (all San Francisco Opera performances), I deliberately chose to attend the performances with the most famous opera stars. I always knew that the tickets carried a phrase to wit that the “casts and opera were subject to change”. In fact, years ago, my ticket to a performance of Donizetti’s “Lucia” transformed itself into Verdi’s “Aida”.
Big name opera singers would become “indisposed” with replacements that usually never lived up to what I had expected from the artist being replaced. Although in a long career of attending live performances there can be a pleasant surprise (once Jon Vickers stepped in to sing Radames in “Aida” when a lesser known Rumanian tenor fell ill), it usually portends disappointment, if not disaster.
(I reviewed a performance on these pages of an opera performance in Europe whose lead soprano fell ill during the performance. The company’s solution was simply to cut out every subsequent scene in which the soprano was to appear.)
However, over the past few years I have been observing an extraordinary trend. Despite the grousing of some critics who (as critics have done throughout history) state that their era is marked by an obvious decline in singers of quality, my observations are quite different. What I believe is happening is that we are producing far more excellent opera singers than their are performances to accommodate them.
[Below: Yonghoon Lee is Manrico and Stephanie Blythe is Azucena in the 2014 Lyric Opera revival of Sir David McVicar’s production of Verdi’s “Il Trovatore”; edited image, based on a Robert Kusel photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]
[For my performance review, see: Review: Golden Age Verdi Singing for Lyric Opera’s “Il Trovatore” – Chicago, October 27, 2014.]
There are several consequences. Tiny parts are often now assigned to singers who have the vocal power and training to take over the lead roles and perform them with distinction. Thus, just because an important artist has to withdraw from a performance or performance run, it need not be a disaster.
I recall four instances in 2014 where changes were accommodated with all appearance of smoothness. (I have no doubt that there were apoplectic moments when an opera’s management first heard of the necessity of a change.)
In Toronto’s “Roberto Devereux” of late April, the title role tenor withdrew. The Santa Fe Opera suffered the loss of its original Norina in Donizetti’s “Don Pasquale” and, what would have appeared as an insurmountable problem, the title role tenor in their American debut premiere of Ruo’s “Doctor Sun Yat-Sen” (which is performed in Mandarin!) Finally, the San Francisco Opera had to replace its originally scheduled Dandini, with all its comic patter, in Rossini’s “Cenerentola”.
In the Toronto incident, the solution is perhaps reflective of what I argue has become a comfortably large pool of Donizetti lyric tenors.
However, in the Santa Fe and San Francisco cases, the “last minute” replacements were built into the production’s planning. Singers had been recruited into the Young Artists’ programs in Santa Fe and San Francisco, with specific plans for them to learn both the roles and staging. How this all works is a subject worthy of exploration.
Over the past several months, I’ve interviewed persons such as David Holloway at the Santa Fe Opera and Michael Heaston at the Glimmerglass Festivals who lead the teams that have decided even before their processes of national auditions begin, exactly what types of voices they need to recruit to perform and cover the roles needed. Those interviews are the beginning of a future series of conversations on how opera companies recruit and train singers so as to minimize the impact of losing a lead artist.
The “problem” of critics liking opera performances too well
I suspect another subject to address is one that I discussed in my “end of 2011″ remarks – a defense against a charge (now from more than one person) that I like the productions and performances offered by the San Francisco Opera too much. Some may recall that I printed excerpts from another critic who stated “I cannot fathom how you deemed all of those productions to be of such high caliber. . . Preposterous. It makes you look like a shill for the company.”
[Below: Don Giovanni (Marius Kwiecien, right) offers to take the bride Zerlina (Andriana Chruchman, left) under his protection in the 2014 Robert Falls production of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” for the Lyric Opera of Chicago; edited image of a Michael Brosilow photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]
[For my performance review, see: Review: Mariusz Kwiecien Excels in Robert Falls New “Don Giovanni” Production – Lyric Opera of Chicago, October 29, 2014.]
I’ve explained my letter grades are not graded on a curve. Just like in a graduate course, I expect to give an “A” to any performance that I consider to meet the expectations of a world class company. I give pluses and minuses and lower grades depending on whether a performance exceeds or fails to meet what I would expect for a performance of that work.
(I am not assessing whether Kern’s “Show Boat” is a lesser or greater work than Wagner’s “Siegfried”, but only if the performance met or exceeded the international expectations of a world class company presenting the work.)
Incidentally, in 2014, I did review at least one work at the invitations of the major opera companies of San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, Santa Fe, Saint Louis, Chicago, Houston, Toronto, Washington DC, Glimmerglass NY, Paris, Geneva, Zurich, Turin and Marseilles, and have some confidence (perhaps shared by companies that invite me to review) that I can assess what constitutes a world class performance.
[Below: the monk Athanaël (Placido Domingo, left) seeks to convert Thaïs (Nino Machaidze, right) in the Los Angeles Opera performances of Massenet’s “Thaïs”; edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
[For my performance review, see: Placido Domingo, Nino Machaidze In a Triumphant “Thaïs” – Los Angeles Opera, May 17, 2014.]
Unfortunately for any prospect of repairing my reputation with my critic colleague, when it came to assessing my letter grades for the San Francisco Opera productions mounted in 2014, not only was I unable to find any of the nine productions the company offered deserving of a grade lower that an A, I couldn’t find any that did not exceed my definition of a routine performance by an internationally ranked opera house.
Thus, assured of derision (You’re cheerleading! That’s not reviewing!), with some great reluctance I had to admit to myself that every one of the nine productions were superbly done. Thus the unprecedented nine A pluses.
I’m sometimes asked why I limit my grades to San Francisco Opera productions. The answer is simply that when the website was created in 2006, I had expected to concentrate my energies on the one company. (There are many opera critics who review only a single company preponderantly, sometimes exclusively.)
However, if I were to give A pluses to performances I saw at other companies, if you peruse the photographs that accompany this post, you would know some (but not all) of those which also would have received such a grade.
[Below: Rusalka (Ana Maria Martinez, above) and the Prince (Brandon Jovanovich, below) seek to understand each other’s worlds in Sir David McVicar’s 2014 production of Dvorak’s “Rusalka” for Lyric Opera; edited image, based on a Todd Rosenberg photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]
[For my performance review, see: Martinez, Jovanovich Lead Brilliant Cast for McVicar’s Exotic “Rusalka” Dreamworld – Lyric Opera of Chicago, March 10, 2014.]
However, the visits to other North American and European cities do not change the fact that there is an obvious relationship between this website and the San Francisco Opera.
I am a multi-decade subscriber to that institution. (This, of course, means rather than the company paying me as a “shill”, instead I support the company financially), Further, my 50-year anniversary “reviews” of each performance I ever saw approximately trace the tenure of the company’s second general director, Kurt Herbert Adler, whereas my reviews from 2006 on cover every production offered by the company during the tenure of the sixth general director, David Gockley.
Even granting such idiosyncracies that a student of San Francisco Opera history will detect in my opinions, I suspect these chronicles of the Adler and Gockley eras will perhaps prove useful to future students of opera and of that opera company, and, for that reason, I do not plan to cease doing either 50-year anniversary ‘reviews’ nor the annual ratings of productions offered.
In fact, although I’ve not devoted space to DVD reviews, other than the special case of the John Pascoe production of Donizetti’s “Lucrezia Borgia” [See: Dramatically, Visually Exciting EuroArts DVD of San Francisco Opera Performance of Donizetti’s “Lucrezia Borgia”], I note that each of the five DVDs in this series released so far are San Francisco Opera productions that I rated A+.
[Below: Mylio (Florian Locani, front center, with sword) pledges his love to Rozenn (Inva Mula, front left) as the King of Ys (Nicolas Courjal, right) looks on; edited image, based on a Christian Dresse photograph, courtesy of the Opéra National de Marseille.]
[For my performance review, see: A Rousing “Le Roi d’Ys” at Opéra de Marseille – May 10, 2014.]
A DVD review is not exactly like a live performance review. A DVD is like a movie in the sense that the team preparing the DVD selects the points of view, unlike a live performance where you, as an audience member, decide what you will look at. Nor, to the best of my knowledge, does the technology allow for the acoustics of the opera house to be heard on the DVD in the same way that they are heard in live performance.
But, as I think about it, the process of reviewing the live performance and rating it highly, may be given additional credence when that review is supplemented by a review of a DVD of the same performance. I’ll spend some time on such an endeavor in 2015.
[Below: Amelia (Krassimira Stoyanova, left) tries to warn Gustavo (Piotr Beczala, right) of an assassination attempt; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]
[For my performance review, see: A Star-bright “Ballo in Maschera” – San Diego Opera, March 8, 2014.]
Opera as a Community Affair
The opera world internationally was startled to learn that the General Director and Board of Directors of the well-regarded San Diego Opera announced that they cease operations after 49 years at the end of their performances of Masssenet’s “Don Quichotte” and close down forever.
The community’s reaction to the decision appears not to have been expected by the opera board, and the majority of board members resigned and senior management departed amid what could be described as a quite savage dialogue with the opera’s community partisans. There certainly were issues to sort through, and I do not know if every issue that seemed to spell doom to the former board has been resolved in a way to assure the company’s long-term future.
[Below: Fiordiligi (Rachel Willis-Sorensen, standing, left) and Dorabella (Melody Moore, standing right) are amused at the idea that they would become enamored of the Albanians, who are, in fact, Ferrando (Norman Reinhardt, seated on floor, left) and Guglielmo (Jacques Imbrailo, seated on floor, right) in disguise; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]
[For my performance review, see: Review: Classy Cast in Classic “Cosi fan Tutte” – Houston Grand Opera, October 31, 2014.]
However, the San Diego community push-back against tbe board’s original decision was impressive. So too was the rallying of the larger opera world to help those forces who intended to assure that San Diego (whose metropolitan area population well exceeds three million, not even counting the large population across the U. S. – Mexican border, nor populous Orange, Riverside and Los Angeles counties within driving distance) continues to have a world-class opera company of its own.
I will be reporting on the three mainstage operas of their 50th anniversary season. I will also be following what ideas for channeling the enthusiasm into a workable plan to assure the company’s future are implemented and prove successful.
For those interested in previous posts in this series, they may be accessed throught the “William’s Thoughts and Assessments” category link in the upper right corner of this website’s front-page.
Tags: William's Thoughts and Assessments
January 16th, 2015
The following interview took place in the administrative offices of the San Francisco Opera, whose facilitation is deeply appreciated.
[Mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong; resized image of a Kristen Howbermann photograph, courtesy of Elizaveth DeShong]
Wm: What are your earliest memories of music?
ED: Music was always a part of my family. My father is a United Methodist Minister, so I grew up singing in church. Both of my parents sing and play the piano, both have beautiful voices. I can recall sitting on top of our piano at home, while my dad played and I belted out tunes.
Wm: How did you become involved with music personally?
ED: I started piano lessons and sang my first vocal solo in the third grade. For a long time, I thought I’d become a pianist. I accompanied our school choirs from 5th grade through graduation, but solo piano recitals made me terribly nervous. Singing excited me, and it became clear in my summer at Boston University’s Tanglewood Institute that I was most competitive in and had more of a passion for voice.
Wm: How did you become interested in opera?
ED: As a family, we did not listen to opera. My introduction to opera came through voice teachers who found a certain capability in my voice. The first opera I ever saw was a performance of Bizet’s “Carmen” by a very small regional company. It peaked my interest.
I was drawn to opera, because it was the greatest challenge. I learned that opera was basically the Olympics of singing. For that reason, when I auditioned for colleges, I chose voice instead of piano.
Wm: What college did you select to further your interest in voice?
ED: My piano teacher Galen Deibler had attended Oberlin, and had only wonderful things to say about it. Also, my first voice teacher, Kathleen Osborn, knew of Daune Mahy’s studio there, and felt her teaching was some of the best available. She knew that her studio utilized healthy techniques, giving young singers focused attention, and that appealed to me.
After auditioning and taking lessons at a number of prospective studios, Oberlin became the obvious choice for me.
[Below: Elizabeth DeShong as Hermia in “The Enchanted Island” for the New York Metropolitan Opera; resized image of an Elizabeth DeShong photograph, courtesy of Elizabeth DeShong.]
Wm: You are a strong proponent of the idea that an opera singer should be a good pianist.
ED: Oh, yes. My very first voice teacher began drilling into me the importance of piano for anyone involved with music. For vocal performance, one should take piano lessons in order to understand the score. It also saves singers a lot of money in coaching fees to be able to prepare roles independently.
Wm: But you moved on from Susquehanna University to schools with better-known music programs.
ED: I studied piano with a teacher that taught at Susquehanna University, while I was a high school student.
Wm: How did you choose where to go next?
ED: I decided that, at that time, I needed a liberal arts school with an important music conservatory. Heading to New York City would have been too much of an overload.
At Oberlin there was no competition with graduate students. I received a lot of extra lessons. I sang with the Cleveland Orchestra. I believe that the more opportunities to perform that one has, the better, and I am very grateful to Oberlin for providing it.
Wm: Then you pursued graduate studies at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.
ED: Yes. Since I had graduated from a liberal arts college whose conservatory provided me with a strong academic and musical foundation, I was ready for the Curtis Institute whose focus is solely on music performance. It was there that I got my Masters.
Wm: And, ultimately, you were accepted into an opera company’s young artists program.
ED: I had graduated early from Oberlin, started attending Curtis mid-year, and went directly into the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Ryan Opera Center from there. I had worked very hard at Oberlin and Curtis and was ready for new opportunities. There was no down time for me.
[Below: Elizabeth DeShong as the First Norn in Wagner’s Götterdämmerung; resized image of an Elizabeth DeShong photograph, courtesy of Elizabeth DeShong.]
Wm: What did your three years in the Lyric Opera’s Ryan Opera Center mean to you?
ED: When you spend time at the Ryan Opera Center so many people hear you. The training at Chicago’s Lyric Opera prepares you for anything.
You learn how to be visible and audible, to project both character and voice. The opportunity the program provided to watch and learn from the top professionals in my field was invaluable.
Wm: Involvement in a high-powered Young Artist’s program like the Ryan Center can be a major boost to an operatic career, yet it doesn’t assure a major career. How advice would you offer an aspiring opera singer accepted into such a program?
ED: Being selected for such a program can seem like a one-way ticket to success, yet many singers don’t go further than the Young Artists program. It’s important for a person who has achieved acceptance to know that a successful career is not only about the voice.
Every time you meet or sing for a person, you have to view it as an audition. First impressions last in this business. It may seem like the hardest work has been done in getting accepted, but in reality, it is just beginning. You are building your reputation as an artist as soon as you step in the door, before a note is sung. This matters.
Be prepared, always. Be on time, always. Keep your eyes and ears open, and your mouth shut. Learn. If one is fortunate to continue on out of the program, there is still much to learn about the lifestyle that you can’t learn until you navigate it alone.
Many talented opera singers find the lifestyle too demanding. So little of the lifestyle is costumes and applause. It is exhilarating if you love it, but you will miss weddings, funerals, births, graduations, etc.. You need to learn how to be your own travel agent, financial planner, nutritionist, press agent, therapist, and the list goes on. There are a lot of factors beyond talent that go into launching a major career.
Wm: How do you and your partner negotiate the tradeoffs between one’s home-life and career?
ED: I am so fortunate to have a partner who understands the demands of my job. He is a recording engineer who initially trained as a singer. He never asks me not to take a job. It is so rare to find a partner who understands and can accept the demands that a successful opera career will make on them.
As a performing artist, you have to get your rest. You have to stay healthy. It’s a matter of self-preservation. You will seem selfish at times. You have to have a partner who understands that and is willing to give you the support you need.
[Below: Elizabeth DeShong as Cinderella in Rossini’s “Cenerentola”; edited image, based on a Clive Barda photograph, courtesy of Elizabeth DeShong.]
Wm: Although some artists are very successful at raising a family while pursuing an international opera career, it has to be a major consideration for any artist, and particularly for women.
ED: I talk about this a lot with friends who have chosen to have children, while pursuing an operatic career. It can be done, but it is, no doubt, exceptionally complicated. It is tricky for a woman, like me, who sings roles where they are supposed to be playing young men. There is no hiding a pregnancy when singing a “pants role”.
Timing is also an issue. You have a major house or role debut scheduled, in which your time, energy and money has been invested. If you withdraw from your commitments to have a baby, or to meet the needs of your family, it can be a source of anguish or regret, or a major blow to your career. In all fairness, I believe this to be a very difficult issue for men who wish to have children and navigate this career, as well.
In the end, we make time for the things that are most important to us. There is a certain blind drive and determination inherent in any successful opera singer that makes us jump at a challenge and strive for the nearly impossible, perhaps that makes us all the more capable of leaping into the complicated journey that is parenthood.
Wm: What does your mother and father and wider family think of your career?
ED: I’m not sure what they really think of all of this. As I mentioned before, opera was not something that they were into at all. However, I do know that they have always believed in my talent, supported me in my education, and are proud of my accomplishments.
[Below: Elizabeth DeShong in her dressing room, in costume as Hansel in the Glyndebourne Festival production of Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel”; edited image, based on a personal photograph, courtesy of Elizabeth DeShong.]
Wm: The earliest that I reviewed one of your performances was in October 2009, when you sang the Page in Richard Strauss’ “Salome” at the San Francisco Opera, under the baton of Nicola Luisotti. This was a role you had sung before.
ED: Yes, I had sung the Page at Lyric Opera with Deborah Voigt in October 2006.
Wm: Then I reported on your Suzuki in the Lee Blakeley production at the Santa Fe Opera. I noted that you, and your colleagues Kelly Kaduce (Cio Cio San) and Brandon Jovanovich (Pinkerton) were ” the accomplished actors one now routinely expects from American trained artists. They rose to the occasion for Blakeley’s stage direction, that emphasized the darker aspects of Puccini’s work.”
ED: The Santa Fe production was my first Suzuki. Lee Blakeley really understood the characters. He gave everyone the chance to be strong. I thought his production was beautifully focused. It highlighted all the elements in the drama. That was a beautiful experience. I loved it.
Wm: Then you were back at the Chicago Lyric in Neil Armfield’s production of Britten’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” from Opera Australia. I was impressed that, in addition to the weighty Puccini and Richard Strauss roles I had seen you perform, that you excelled also in Britten’s lighter-voiced Hermia.
ED: Thank you. I first learned the role as a student of Marlena Malas. She had performed the role herself, and gave me great insight into the character.
Hermia is one of my favorite characters to play. I think my smaller physical stature lends itself to this feisty character. She goes on such a journey without the aid of magic. She brings a very strong emotional presence to the piece.
In fact, I played two Hermias in one season. The other was in the Met’s “Enchanted Island”. She was the same girl, in a different situation.
Wm: Before you and Michael Fabiano sang together in Donizetti’s “Lucrezia Borgia’ you were in a controversial English National Opera (ENO) production designed by Michael Figgis, the film director famous for the movie Leaving Las Vegas. It was a quite non-traditional approach to your character, Gennaro’s friend, Maffio Orsini, wasn’t it?
ED: Very much so. When I learned the role of Maffio Orsini, I was thinking of the character as a traditional pants role. The perception of Maffio as a pants role was not present in Figgis’ conceptualization. He felt the piece needed another strong female influence.
When we arrived, we found ourselves working with a film director, in a filmic way. This translated well to the TV broadcast. To me, in the end, the only absolutes that one can bring to a role are healthy vocalism and a spirit of collaboration.
Wm: Figgis created a film in Italian that described Borgia family events, but the opera itself was sung in English.
ED: : It was an unexpected choice, but really spoke of his work in film.
Wm: Figgis and John Pascoe, who directed the San Francisco Opera production, approached that opera in quite different ways, did they not?
ED: For Figgis, you had to be very certain to make your intentions known vocally, and keep your focus strong . We had a very minimalistic stage quality… very little in the way of a set and reduced movement. Perfect for film, a challenge to make read in the theater. It was a different type of challenge.
San Francisco provided a more traditional experience. Operatic drama was fully embraced. My Gennaro in both productions was Michael Fabiano.
Wm: In Figgis’ “Lucrezia”, Gennaro and Maffio are friends, but Maffio has a feminine appearance. In Pascoe, both Gennaro and Maffio are played as men, but men who are gay lovers. I’m on record as feeling that Pascoe’s approach resolves some dramatic weaknesses in the libretto.
[Below: Elizabeth DeShong as Maffio Orsino, in the 2011 Michael Figgis production of Donizetti’s “Lucrezia Borgia”; resized image, based on a photograph for the English National Opera.]
ED: I think that Pascoe’s concept works very well, and comes naturally out of the text.
Wm: You sing both Rossini’s Rosina in ‘Barber of Seville” and the title role in “Cenerentola ” as well as Donizetti’s Orsini. Although Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini are usually categorized together as bel canto composers, their styles are quite different, aren’t they?
ED: There is a difference in the amount of orchestration that Rossini gives you. In his more comedic operas, he provides a bubbly energy to propel the drama, that you then fill in with your voice. In Bellini and Donizetti, there is more orchestration that you have to cut through. A thicker undercurrent. A role like Orsini asks more of the voice.
What unifies them is that they all require you to use every tool in your vocal toolbox, so to speak. You have to have agility, seamless quality throughout your range, endless colors, breath control, etc. in order to make the characters and music come to life.
[Below: Elizabeth DeShong as Rosina in Rossini’s “Barber of Seville; resized image of an Eli photograph, courtesy of Elizabeth DeShong.]
Wm: I’m looking forward to your Rosina at the Los Angeles Opera when that company performs its trilogy of operas with the lead character of Figaro (Corigliano’s “Ghosts of Versailles”, Rossini’s “Barber” and Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro”) in February and March 2015.
You’ve performed in Glyndebourne and English National Opera, but most of your work has been in the United States. You are used to performing in the large opera houses that North America in noted for.
ED: Yes, I’ve mostly sung at larger houses. Lyric Opera trained me well to feel comfortable navigating a big space. Glyndebourne is the most compact house I’ve experienced. A place like Glyndebourne gives you an extra special gift. Because of it’s acoustics and small size, you can afford to do real extremes of dynamics and character. It is a treat!
Wm: This interview is taking place in 3200 seat San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House, What’s it like singing in this very large house?
ED: It’s amazing how fantastic the acoustics are in the War Memorial Opera House. For this year’s “Butterfly” the Jun Kaneko sets were relatively compact, so there was no big set against which to project one’s voice.
It is amazing how well the War Memorial Opera House works to caress your sound sound. It is a glorious environment. You can’t ask for more than that.
Wm: Over the next few weeks you are scheduled to sing the heavier role of Suzuki in Toronto, rejoining the Cio Cio San’s of both Patricia Racette and Kelly Kaduce; as well as the lighter weight roles of Rosina in Los Angeles and the title role of Rossini’s “Cenerentola” in Vienna.
You only have so much influence on what roles might be offered you, but do control what offers you accept. Assuming you are offered quite different roles, how do you decide whether you want to be singing, say, Rosina or Amneris?
ED: I purposefully keep my repertory varied. I have a vocal color and flexibility that allows me to choose quite different roles.
Whenever I get an offer of a new role, I sit down at the piano and see what demands will this role make of me. I ask myself, can I meet those demands in a healthy way? Take a role like Princess Eboli in Verdi’s “Don Carlos”. Yes, I could sing this role now. Yes, I can imagine it being one of my future roles.
But I know that this is a project that can wait. I want to sing as young as possible as long as possible. Career longevity is important to me.
Wm: Do you have an interest in teaching younger artists?
ED: Yes, I am happy to do master classes. In San Francisco my best friend from childhood teaches in the Piedmont School District and I have given classes for the advanced students there. Even so, I hesitate to give one-off lessons to very young singers who have a private voice teacher. A student needs to trust their teacher, and confusion can derail progress.
Teaching is a hard job and should be taken very seriously. I like to do mentoring, such as advising vocal students on how to prepare for auditions. Coaching pre-professional singers is also something I enjoy.
I wouldn’t say no to teaching. I might want to do it when I finish singing, perhaps while overseeing a Young Artists program.
Wm: In addition to your professional career, you’ve made a hobby of photography. Every day you post another one of your photographs on your Facebook page,
ED: I have a private, quiet interest in photography. The daily postings on www.asingerssuitcase.comaren’t meant as a public relations move, but a way to document this very interesting journey.
[Below: The Vienna Staatsoper in the evening; resized image of an Elizabeth DeShong photograph for asingersuitcase.com, courtesy of Elizabeth DeShong.]
It’s nice to capture a part of each day, because it enables me to remember it almost entirely. As I say on my blog, I hope to create a daily reminder that with travel you always take away more than you arrived with, but the most important of these things can’t be put in a suitcase.
Wm: Thank you, Elizabeth, for your time.
ED: Thank you, I appreciate it.
Tags: 2008-2014 William's Interviews