We met Alyson Cambridge in person at the Washington National Opera on November 14, 2014. For various reasons it took a long time to publish the interview in full, and while the La Bohème show we were covering at the time is long gone (see our review of the show [here] with many photos), Ms. Cambridge has addressed many other interesting topics regarding her eventful career; she is very intelligent, friendly, and articulate, therefore this text is of interest even though it's been a couple of months. We are sure our readers will quite enjoy this piece. This is Opera Lively's interveiw # 146.
Photo credit Enrique Vega - fair promotional use
Singer - Alyson Cambridge
Fach - Lyric-Spinto Soprano
Born in - Washington, DC, USA
Recently in - La Bohème (Musetta), Washington National Opera
Next in - La Bohème (Mimi), San Diego Opera, Jan 24-27-30, Feb 1(m), 2015 - tickets [here]
Singer's website - www.alysoncambridge.com
American soprano Alyson Cambridge has been hailed by critics as “radiant, vocally assured, dramatically subtle and compelling, and artistically imaginative” (Washington Post) and noted for her “powerful, clear voice” (New York Times), and “revelatory, sensual, smoky readings” (Opera News). Her rich, warm soprano, combined with her strikingly beautiful stage presence and affecting musical and dramatic interpretation, have brought her over a decade of success on the leading opera and concert stages in the world, including The Metropolitan Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Washington National Opera, Los Angeles Opera, Carnegie Hall, London’s Royal Albert Hall, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Vienna Konzerthaus, but to name a few, as well as recent debuts in Paris, Warsaw, Beijing, and other musical capitals throughout Europe and Asia.
Her diverse repertoire includes the beloved heroines of Puccini, Verdi and Mozart (Mimi, Musetta, Donna Elvira, Violetta, and Micaëla among them) as well as recent successful forays into the crossover, Broadway and jazz repertoire, most notably recent award-winning and critically-acclaimed performances of Julie in SHOW BOAT and Vi in Gershwin’s rarely performed jazz-opera BLUE MONDAY. Alyson’s debut album, “FROM THE DIARY OF SALLY HEMINGS”, a song-cycle by acclaimed American composer William Bolcom, premiered at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall to rave reviews, and her next album of crossover and jazz standards is due out soon (it is already available in pre-order).
Photo credit Enrique Vega - fair promotional use
Ms. Cambridge's prodigious career got off to an auspicious start – as a graduate of the Metropolitan Opera's Lindemann Young Artist Development Program and Grand Prize Winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, she made her MET debut in 2004 as Frasquita in CARMEN under the baton of James Levine and ever since has appeared in seven more seasons there.
Alyson Cambridge received both a B.M. in Voice Performance from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and a B.A. in Sociology from Oberlin College and continued her studies at the Curtis Institute of Music before being offered a place in the MET’s young artist program. Among numerous awards and prizes, Ms. Cambridge has been awarded First Prize in the Licia Albanese-Puccini Foundation International Voice Competition, was a George London Foundation Award recipient, and won the Régine Crespin Award Elardo International Opera Competition; we've mention that she won the Met's National Council Auditions as well.
She's been in two of the Met Live in HD broadcasts - La Rondine and Thaïs. They are both available on DVD:
This is her first CD:
The Exclusive Opera Lively Interview with Alyson Cambridge
This interview is copyrighted to Opera Lively and can only be reproduced in part or whole with authorization (use the Contact Us form). Links to it do not require authorization. Questions by Luiz Gazzola.
Alyson Cambridge during her exclusive Opera Lively interview, photo by Luiz Gazzola/Opera Lively
Luiz Gazzola for Opera Lively - First of all, let’s talk about the current production of La Bohème at WNO. The sets are traditional and realistic. I recently saw one from Salzburg where the sets were updated to contemporary times and full of trash. What is your opinion of traditional/realistic versus updated/abstract sets for a piece like La Bohème that seems to address a very specific time period and environment?
Alyson Cambridge – I’ve been part of both traditional and contemporary versions of La Bohème. Actually the last time I was at WNO it was a very contemporary, updated production and it received very mixed reviews. It was sort of controversial. I will say, however, that it brought a new audience. There were a lot of people who were curious to see what the production was all about. I thought that aspect of it was quite good. I’ve done many traditional Mimìs and Musettas. At the end of the day if you maintain and highlight the truth in the story you really can set it at any time, because it’s a timeless story. It depends on the director. If in their contemporary vision they stray from the libretto, people can take some issue with it, but I can see nothing wrong with updating it. This is what holds true for many operas. If you maintain the truth in the characters and the libretto, time is not such a big factor.
LG - Saimir Pirgu is a great tenor (and one of the former Opera Lively interviewees). How has your experiencing of performing with him and with your other colleagues been?
AC – I absolutely adore Saimir. This is the first time that we’ve worked together. He has this boyish charm and energy which is perfect for Rodolfo. I’ve gotten to know him off stage as well, and he is just lovely. He has a beautiful timbre to his sound and just sings with great heart, passion, and enthusiasm. He is one of these people who has done many Bohèmes as I have; he came to rehearsals totally open to whichever way the production would go, but he maintained his sense of Rodolfo and what Saimir could bring to that role, and I appreciated that. It was great that he brought his own experience as an artist to the table, as someone who has dealt with love, loss, and death.
Corinne is lovely. I’ve also never worked with her before but we have many friends and colleagues in common because we both went to school in Philadelphia. She was at AVA [Academy of Vocal Arts] and I was at Curtis [Curtis Institute of Music], so I heard lots of great things about her. It’s been great to get to know her and work with her. She is a beautiful singer.
OL - What makes of this production something special?
AC – The slight updating into 1919 is really interesting. It’s just after World War I. We see Colline in his crutches presumably from a war injury, and there is an overcast dark gray cloud I would say that hovers over the production. There is a sense of the time, of heaviness. People have lost lives and friends and family, so you get that overall sense. When you come into Act II and the Café Momus, after you’ve been to this gray act I, now there is life. You have to imagine that even post World War I there was still a vibrancy in Paris and the city was very much alive. Great characters such as Gertrude Stein, Charlie Chaplin, and these various artists who were alive and thriving during this period are sprinkled out throughout act II.
OL – They make an appearance, right?
AC – Yes, they do!
OL – And people were rebounding from the war, then there was an atmosphere of getting things back in order and living again.
AC – Right, people were yearning for that. You really see that in Act II, especially.
OL - What can you say about the psychology of your character Musetta?
AC – Musetta is a very interesting character. Having played both Mimì and Musetta and having read the novel, I realized that Mimì and Musetta were more similar in the novel, whereas in the opera they are more dissimilar. They are both women who have experienced love and loss, and Musetta is elevated to this extreme degree of knowing how to play with men and manipulate them. She knows how to get what she wants, but her heart is good. At the end of the day, she loves Marcello. She may throw a fit, she may have her scene with Alcindoro and flirt with men, but she is aware that this is just a power that she has, and really just a tool to get at the core for Marcello. That’s really what it comes down to. I feel like there is almost a missing scene that could show all of the bohemians together after the café, just really enjoying one another, because Musetta is part of this group. She is not one of the boys but she knows them really well. And then when Mimì comes into the circle, she and Mimì develop a friendship. That’s sort of the missing scene, so when you get to act IV, she says “I’ll give my earrings, let’s get some medicine, let’s get a doctor, get her a muff” – she wants do to everything she can to help her girlfriend. [Editor’s note – curiously, it is known that the librettists did write an additional act right at this point in the opera, centered on Musetta – an open-air party in her courtyard after she fails to pay rent and her furniture is thrown out – but Puccini decided not to set it to music.]
When I’m playing this character, for me act II is about Musetta and Marcello. I’m not really thinking about the other guys. I’m a little annoyed with them and just think of them as the dressing around Marcello. I’m focused on the main course, Marcello. When we get into act III you see the ongoing banter – it’s just the nature of their relationship. They are hot, they are cold, but it’s always passionate. Then you get to act IV, and it’s “oh my gosh, here is the heart.” That’s why Marcello continues to come back to her. She may be a handful, but she offers something. More than just spice and zest, she offers heart.
OL – They both seem to have a yearning for freedom. They want to be in a relationship, but be free at the same time.
AC – Yes, absolutely.
OL – So, you mentioned the novel, is the something you always do, going back to the sources to study your characters?
AC – I do, especially for this piece, because La Bohème has been such a big part of my career. I learned that early on. When I started to study opera in college, my professor came from a theater background. He had a set way to go about researching a role for the first time and it involved a lot of reading and studying about the time period; if the story originated from a novel, I had to go back and read the novel, the play or whatnot. That’s something I’ve always done. I first did Musetta and shortly thereafter I did my first Mimì, and it kept going back and forth. It’s been nine years I’ve been singing both of these roles.
You have to know where the story is coming from, but then you have to go into each production with a rather clean slate and be open to whatever the production asks of you. Mimì, for example: does she see Rodolfo blow out his candle? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Does she know that he has actually found the key? It depends. I come in with my own feelings about things and you have to see where the production takes you, but it is important to go back to the source and have something to hold on to, otherwise the characters are surface.
OL – That’s a role you know very well. But when you get a new role, do you typically look at what your predecessors have done before? Do you go first to the libretto, or to the vocal score with a pianist? What’s your preparation process?
AC – When I’m learning something completely from scratch that I’ve never heard before, then I’ll go and listen, and I think “let me hear what this thing sounds like.” But if it’s a piece that I’m relatively familiar with as a listener, I actually don’t want to go and listen, because my ear is very sharp and if I hear something one time it sort of gets in me. I don’t ever want to become a mimic. I don’t want to try to sound or sing or stylize a role like somebody else did it. I want to feel like I’m creating it for the first time. I’ll read the novel or play if there is one, then I’ll read the libretto, and I’ll go to my pianist, and coach, and teacher and sink my teeth into the vocalisms, and create what I can for myself. After I’ve done all that, then I can go back and listen. Leontyne [Price] was a great creator of this role, and Tebaldi or Freni. Then you can pick up little things and say “Oh, I like that choice” but I want to make the choices for myself, first.
This is a trap that many singers from our generation can fall into because we do have access to all these recordings on YouTube. Many young singers when they are given an aria, google these clips and want to sing like that. You have to make it your own. It’s really important. We are artists. We are creators. We are not here just to imitate. What is tough about opera is that we are singing music that has been around for hundreds of years. Many people have sung it, and we’ll always be compared to people of the past. This is all the more reason for us to do what we can to stand out as individual artists. I’d love for someone who comes and sees my Musetta to not compare me with my predecessors, although I know it’s going to happen anyway. I’d like people to say “oh, that’s interesting; I never thought of that choice and I like how she did that.”
OL – In our recent interview with Italian baritone Massimo Cavalletti he said that great singers are unique in a sense because of some traits that might be called shortcomings or idiosyncrasies that would actually be a defect in someone else’s voice. When you listen to them, it’s the weird characteristics that stand out – otherwise they’d be just bland and generic instead of being famous as great singers. These unique traits fit *their* voices but would be mistakes for someone else, so if you listen to them too much and pick up those choices that are not a good fit for your voice, you may stray into the wrong path. When you try to sing like them you sound forced and fake.
AC – This is so true! There are so many great singers that I go back and listen to and think “OK, that works for them, but I know my voice, it wouldn’t work for me.” It’s how you take a breath or phrase something. There’s an aria that has been part of my repertory for about one year, and a coach might say “one should not take a breath at this point” but if I go to another coach who knows *my* voice he’ll say “I know that this breath here works for you.” When you sing with conviction and do what is right for you, that’s what is convincing for the listener. You can’t just do what everybody else did.
OL – On the other hand, I think that if there is a point that is a particular difficulty that needs to be solved, it might be helpful to look at how others did it, as long as you look at several singers and compare how they went around it in order to find your own way to pass that speed bump, instead of trying to just do it like one single famous singer did it.
AC – Right, exactly, I agree with you there.
OL - What is your recipe for portraying and singing a good Musetta?
Alyson as Musetta
AC - We kind of talked about it a little bit, but I can add a little more. I go into Musetta first and foremost with the attitude of fun, because she is fun. Act II centers around Musetta. It is about life and good spirits. It is an overall jovial feeling. Musetta is at the core of that, for that scene. I come in with the intention to sparkle and shine, and to have fun with it. I want to sing it beautifully and lusciously and always with a lot of personality.
OL - Tell us about the gorgeous Muzetta’s Waltz “Quando me’n vo” – is it difficult?
AC – I suppose it can be, because it’s one of the most famous pieces in the operatic repertoire. I debuted my first Musetta in 2005 when I was still considered to be a light lyric coloratura. Now I’m a full lyric, or lyric-spinto, even. My voice has changed a lot. How I sing it is really different, and how I pace it has changed over the years, but I do still come and think “she is fire, she is fun.” Like any singer, as you develop, you are always tweaking your technique, especially for pieces that have been in your repertoire for a long time.
OL – When there is a really signature aria like that in your role, is it frightening for the performer, to think “these 3,000 people are sitting there looking at me and they are all waiting for this moment, so I need to do well on this one”?
AC – Hm hm, there is part of that, I will say. As I’ve gone throughout my career, I think about it less and less. I know I’m not going to sing it like Freni did or Gheorghiu did. I’m going to sing it like I sing it. In the early part of my career when I was in general more self-conscious, I felt like I was trying to please teachers, coaches, critics, and that actually got me tight and constricted. For example, I recently did a Bohème as Mimì, and the maestro had conducted it many, many times; I came in and I had some different choices on how I was going to pace the first aria. First day, we talked about it, and by the end he was a believer. He said “aha” because I sang what works for my voice. I really believed in the character, and that translated well. Maybe five years ago I wouldn’t have done that. I’d have thought “he thinks I should do it that way, so I’ll do as he wants.” I stay within the respectful parameters of the music and the libretto that are given to me but I do also now listen a lot to my gut and to my voice, and my instincts as an actress, as well.
OL - Tell us what is different (and maybe challenging) in singing in a musical like Show Boat versus opera, from the standpoint of the singer. [Alyson was Julie in the Lyric Opera of Chicago production, in 2012]
Alyson in Show Boat - Credit unknown
AC – First of all, I have to say that doing Show Boat for me opened up a giant window. Inside of me there was a house of music and a lot of windows were open in opera which was coming out, but there was always musical theater inside. And then, when I got the opportunity to do Show Boat this giant window just burst open and I was just – “Ah! This is amazing! I’m so glad I get to do this!” I grew up listening to and performing all different kinds of music. I took opera and classical lessons at a music school, but in my high school I did a lot of musical theater. It was always there, and the same thing in college – I did straight plays, I did musical theater, and I did opera.
In terms of the approach, in some ways I don’t know that it is much different. I still come at it as the best musician that I can be and as the best actress I can be. The vocalism is different but that was something that I wasn’t afraid of. I don’t know if some classical singers may be afraid of it or not, but it was familiar to me. I was in a production with a wonderful director, Francesca Zambello, and an amazing conductor, John DeMain, both of whom had worked in the musical theater realm before. They gave me the permission to really push the envelope, vocally and dramatically. There are things that you are able to do, I feel, within musical theater that you can’t necessarily do in opera. There were days when I would sing Julie’s second act aria [the poignant song “Bill”], and I would start crying. You could hear tears in my voice. Or, I would phrase something completely different because that was my mood that night, or I would speak a couple of lines instead of pitching them exactly. You have a little bit of that freedom in opera but for the most part you’ve got to sing those notes on the page. In musical theater I think that there is such a strong emphasis on the theater aspect, and I love it. I really, really love it.
OL – Great answer! I’m very interested in hearing about the Jazz-opera Blue Monday. Please tell me what you think of it, musically and theatrically.
Alyson in Blue Moon - credit unknown
AC – I had done Show Boat, and I had done Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, and the director of On Site Opera [a company dedicated to producing site-specific opera in non-traditional venues throughout New York], Eric Einhorn, I’d known him for years, from my undergrad and from the Metropolitan Opera. Basically Blue Monday is the predecessor to Porgy and Bess. It’s Gershwin’s short, 35-minute one-act opera. It had not been produced in New York City for ages. They had this idea that they were going to produce it on location, on site at the Cotton Club, because it takes place in a jazz club. So, when they approached me about it, I was so thrilled! Like Porgy and Bess, it has a lot of jazz idioms, and blues colors to it, however it is written for classical voices. There are big high notes in it; you can’t sing it unless you are a trained opera singer. I was so excited to do it! You get this intense drama in such a short period of time! It was fun.
When I started to show it in social media and invite people to come, there were as many if not more people who were interested in coming to see me in a one-act Gershwin jazz opera at the Cotton Club as there were those who wanted to come see me at the Metropolitan Opera. They loved that it was short, that it was on location; it was a cool thing at a jazz club, but they were hearing opera and great singing and great voices singing great theater, up close. It was really a terrific experience. I look forward to more productions with On Site Opera; I think it is a great way to introduce opera to a new audience. It’s an audience that maybe thinks “Oh, I don’t know if I can handle this” – that’s a great start.
OL – Very nice. I love the fact that you recorded a song cycle by an American composer, From the Diary of Sally Hemings by William Bolcon. Tell me about it, and tell me if you feel a need or mission to diffuse this kind of work.
AC – Hm… how I came about to do From the Diary of Sally Hemings is interesting. Sally Hemings for people who might not know was the slave mistress of President Thomas Jefferson. The story of Sally Hemings and her relationship with Thomas Jefferson has been extremely controversial in American history. There are people who deny that it ever happened, and then there are the descendants of Sally Hemings who say “we have all this proof and we know that we are Jefferson’s grand-children” and who came out to say that this was a real relationship. I was actually scheduled to go sing a concert in Michigan, and the librettist of the piece, Sandra Seaton, she was going through the program and she saw my head shot, and she thought “this girl looks like what I believe Sally Hemings would have looked like.” She wrote me an email and she said “I am going to see you in this concert and I’d love to talk to you about this song cycle that I wrote with William Bolcon.” I said “that would be wonderful,” and I got snowed in to New York. I couldn’t come out for this concert. We stayed in touch. She said “can Bill and I send you the music, and you have a look at it? It was originally composed for Florence Quivar, and of course she is a contralto, but we’d like you to take a look at it and see if it fits you.”
My gosh, the libretto is so dense and intense, and it really works in many ways as a one-woman opera, even though it is eighteen songs cycle! It starts with Sally Hemings at nine years old; she is always singing in the first person. It is based off a fictitious diary entries that she wrote throughout her life and relationship with Jefferson, from the time they were at Monticello, through their travels to Paris together, and then back to Monticello where for all intents and purposes she lived as his common-life wife, but you couldn’t have that at that time. He passed away, and Sally and her children were released into freedom.
I think it is not only an excellent piece of music and writing but I do think it’s an important part of American history that I would love to get out there. I know that when I started looking at it, I thought it was actually some of the most difficult music that I’ve ever worked with, and I’ve played piano from a very early age and I’m quick in terms of learning music, but I thought “wow, this is really something!”
When I premiered it in New York I had a wonderful director, Dona Vaughn whom I’ve worked with many times. We did a semi-staged performance at Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, and I’ll never forget it; it was the night of a huge blizzard in New York and still so many people showed up, and the reception was incredible. Very heavy; I could feel that after two songs people were drawn into this story and this autobiography of this woman and her life with Jefferson. I’m thrilled that the piece is out there and that people can buy the CD, and I really hope to do more performances of it in the future, and I’m actually planning to do one during the 2015-16 season of the Washington Performing Arts here. [Editor’s note: In February 2010 Alyson’s recording of the piece with pianist Lydia Brown was released on the White Pine Music label].
OL – There is also the aspect of it being American music, right?
AC – Oh yes!
OL – Thomas Hampson in his interview with us was saying that it is one of his missions, to promote American art songs, because we have all this European tradition, with people singing Schumann…
AC – And Brahms, and Schubert…
OL - … and we have such great music here!
AC – Yes, we have such amazing music, and that was the thing; I feel like so many people were just surprised, “how come we’ve never heard of this song cycle?” It’s because it takes people like Tom and other people who are champions of American song to get it out there. A lot of people know Bolcom’s Cabaret Songs but they don’t know this. Everybody that gets exposed to it says “oh wow, this is major!” So it’s up to artists like us to get it out there and to promote it.
OL – How are we doing with time? I told your agent 45 minutes, but your answers are so interesting; you draw me in; then I have follow-up questions and it takes longer.
AC – [Laughs] No, it’s great. I have time.
OL - You also sing crossover and jazz and you are about to release an album in this style. How comfortable do you feel, crossing from opera to these genres, and what is more fulfilling for you; this, or opera?
AC – I can’t say which is more fulfilling between jazz, crossover, and opera. For me, it’s music, and it’s me expressing emotions through singing, through voice. I give equal weight and importance to the study of all genres, and I can’t say perfection because there is never a perfect product, but I give equal weight to honing my craft in each of those genres. I have a voice teacher, and I have several opera voice coaches that I work with, but I also have musical theater, Broadway, and jazz coaches that I work with, who instruct me on a very different kind of vocalism. It is a different kind of storytelling, with a lot more emphasis on the text. There is emphasis on the text in opera as well, but it is a different kind of emphasis. In musical theater it is a lot more “talky” and “speaky”; it is this really intimate storytelling, whereas with opera you are over an orchestra and to a certain extent the voice has to get out there, in addition to it being about the text and the music.
I’m really excited about this album, because I feel that I finally have permission to use this side of my voice because straight out of school I moved to New York and started to sing at the Met, and I was on a very narrow focus, opera, opera, opera. For a long time opera looked down on or turned its nose up at anything that was not pure opera when in fact there is really a place for both, and in fact there is quite a bit of crossover. In doing things like Porgy and Bess and Show Boat, in being in those productions, the opera world recognizes now that it is a wonderful gateway to introduce people into this sort of grand scale of singing and production. I think there is a lot more acceptance, now. You see a lot of prominent artists branching out a little bit. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, and I’m just happy and excited to share this side of my music-making and of my voice. I love it so much!
OL - Maestro Frédéric Chaslin was one of the former Opera Lively interviewees; we are very fond of him. Please tell us about his new opera Clarimonde, for which you are the creator of the title role. Please describe the opera and the role for us, including the psychology of the role, and your musical appreciation of the piece.
AC – Chaslin! He is terrific! There is an interesting story, I have to say, about how I came to be associated with Clarimonde. I was doing duets and aria concerts with Joseph Calleja on a tour throughout Europe, about two-and-a-half years ago, and maestro Chaslin was the conductor. I had never worked with him before. At the end of one of concerts we all went out to dinner, and his writing partner and librettist Paula Fisher was in attendance at this concert and sat next to me at this dinner, and she said, “you know, Chaslin and I are working on this opera together about a vampiress; we just started working on it, but I don’t know, I see you as her, and I hear your voice as her.” I said, “Hm, OK.” We all got back to New York and a few months later they invited me over for dinner, and Chaslin said “I just wrote this piece, this is my thought for Clarimonde’s big scene; can you sing it for me?” And I said “now???” You know, we had a couple of glasses of wine, our bellies were full of amazing food, but I said “sure, why not?” He started playing through it and I started singing, and there were amazing elements of rock and pop fused with big sweeping lines like Puccini’s. I just thought “oh my gosh, this is amazing!” He said “OK, OK” just like a mad scientist, and said “let me get to work” so about a year later the opera was completed, and he said “all right, let’s make a demo.” We went into a studio and made a demo, and he continued to work and tweak it, and then I was doing Blue Monday with On Site Opera, and I spoke with Fred and Paula, and they had this vision that they wanted to produce this opera on location in a Gothic church.
In short, the story is about a priest who falls in love with a vampiress. They go back and forth, and she is under the spell of this character called The Maker, and in many ways it’s a Traviata-esque type of characters. He is not supposed to obviously have these lustful feelings towards her but he can’t resist her beauty. The story unfolds and there is a pricking of the pin and blood, and it is just full of so much passion! I love how it ends: you just don’t really know what the fate of these characters will be, and what does it mean that he had her blood, what does it mean that she’s been pricked, that her skin has been pricked by somebody of the cloth; what does it mean in terms of God, religion, lust? Is there a place for them to co-exist? It brings up so many questions…
So, they wanted to produce this on location in a church, and I said “I’m working with this wonderful opera company that produces things on site” and Frédéric came to see Blue Monday, and I introduced him to the heads of the company, and they started talking. What came of it was the first semi-staged production of Clarimonde this past summer at the Phoenicia International Festival of the Voice, and it was in a tiny Catholic church that sat maybe two hundred people, and it was so intimate, so stunning! The cast was incredible, and my character Clarimonde appeared at the balcony behind the pew, with my first vocal entrance, and there was Romualdo, the young priest, and he sees this vision of me, and then I come through the audience and the whole thing unfolds. The response was overwhelming. There was Frédéric, and he was doing most things on the electric keyboard, half with the computer because there is this giant children’s choir which of course we couldn’t have at that time, and all these techno things… I mean, amazing! The audience, everybody was just up on their feet at the end. For me it had been this long process, and I was so thrilled for Frédéric and for Paula to see their creation come to life, and I felt so honored to be a part of that and to have created the role! I’m really excited to see the next step for this opera, because I believe in the piece. It’s really stunning music.
[Editor’s note - Clarimonde is a classic tale of the supernatural in which a young, handsome priest, Romualdo, makes nocturnal visitations to Clarimonde, whom he sees as the beautiful woman he loves. She is a vampiress but not a Bram Stoker-type. (Gautier’s story pre-dates Stoker’s by 6 years). Clarimonde is not a neck-biting, ghoulish creature with fangs, rather; she is an exquisite, erotic courtesan who falls in love with Romualdo. She believes that his love for her (and his pure, priestly blood) will redeem her, rescuing her from her eternal doom. A tough and wise Bishop Serapion guesses what is transpiring, that is, the seduction of the young priest. He wages a battle to save not only Romualdo’s physical life, but also his very soul. The opera is an adaptation of Théophile Gautier’s novella La Morte Amoureuse (1836) in the genre of the conte fantastique where science fiction, fantasy and magic realism merge. World Premiere: August 12, 2014; St. Francis De Sales Catholic Church, Phoenicia, NY, Composer: Frédéric Chaslin; Librettist: Paula H. Fisher; Clarimonde: Alyson Cambridge, soprano; Romualdo: Dominic Armstrong, tenor; Bishop Serapion: Louis Otey, baritone; The Maker: Clayton Mathews, bass-baritone; Mrs. Frye: Brittany Sokolowski; The Gondolier: Blake Friedman, tenor; Stage Director: Eric Einhorn; Conductor: Frédéric Chaslin; co-production On Site Opera and the Phoenicia International Festival of the Voice.]
OL – Is there already a scheduled run of this opera elsewhere?
AC – I know that they did a student performance at an institution in Cleveland. I don’t want to misquote what the institution was, but it was a student program. They did a workshop of it around Halloween which is a great time to talk about vampires and all that. Now we’ve been talking and we’ve been looking into a full large-scale production hopefully in New York, in the fall of 2015 or maybe 2016. I know that they want to do justice to this piece and want to make sure it’s done really well, and when it makes its New York grand debut it’s going to be something spectacular. I have no doubt that it will be. I don’t know who ultimately will end up being the production team behind it; that’s what it’s being discussed, but we’ll have a New York premiere around Halloween either in 2015 or 16.
OL – Wow, I can’t miss that. I’ll be attentive.
AC – Great! I think it’s going to be awesome! You know Fred, and he is wonderful.
OL - How is the experience of working with the live composer of a new piece? Not only you have creating this role of Clarimonde, but you are also singing with Washington Performing Arts in a program of works written specifically for you. Tell us about it.
AC – Working with both Frédéric and Bill Bolcom has been great and there is nothing really like it. When I was doing the Bolcom piece and was recording it he was sitting right there. We were recording in this giant concert hall and he was giving me notes, and he was giving the pianist notes and the librettist was there. He knows exactly what he wants. You don’t have that when you are singing Don Giovanni; there is no Mozart sitting there [laughs] to give you notes! You feel a little bit of pressure but at the same time you feel like “I’m in the best possible hands; that’s the composer, and if he is happy at the end of the day, you can’t ask for much more than that.”
It was the same thing with Frédéric. He sent me the music for the big completed Clarimonde arias, I worked on them on my own because he was in France at the time, and we had one day to rehearse them before we went into the studio to make the demo, and some of the things I thought I was doing right, he said, “No, no, no. You can be nasty here; it doesn’t need to sound perfect, vocally, but rather dirty; you can really sink into these words!” I said “OK” and in some ways it was more like singing musical theater in certain parts, because he cared about the text and the drama, and the real grittiness coming out in certain parts. Then there were big soaring parts with As and B flats in this one scene, and those I was thinking as a singer “I want them perfect.” Other parts were text, text, text, to get that feeling and the pain that Clarimonde was going through. All of that happened in one coaching and in the recording session. At the end of one hour and a half, in my opinion I was singing an almost completely different aria than I had been coaching prior to being in that studio with him. Getting to work with a composer that is living and the librettist is really an invaluable experience.
About the Washington Performing Arts, the two composers that I’m working with, I know them both from my undergraduate at Oberlin College and Conservatory. One is Adam Schoenberg who is getting a lot of attention these days; he is a protégé of Bob Spano at Atlanta Symphony and he has several amazing works that have been premiering around the country; one with the LA Phil at the Hollywood Bowl, and several pieces with the Kansas City Symphony. We were friends at Oberlin and remained friends after school. He came to see some of my performances and I was familiar with his work. When I started talking with Jenny Bilfield at Washington Performing Arts, she said “what would you like to do?” She’d come to know me from Show Boat. I said I’d like to do American things. She said “what about new pieces in addition to the Sally Hemings?” I said, “oh my gosh, amazing!” so I reached out to Adam and he said “Yes! I’ve been wanting to write something for you and now we have a reason to do it!” So, the whole theme of the program really is going to be centered around the idea of strong women in literature and history, so obviously Sally Hemings; that’s her place, and I know that Adam along with his wife who is going to be his librettist for the piece wanted to write a sort of universal piece about a mother singing a lullaby to her child – “my child, this is what you have to look forward in the world” – words of advice in a song cycle.
The other composer is Jeffrey Mumford, who was a professor at Oberlin when I was there, and he came to all my recitals when I was there. He reached out to me some time after I had spoken with Jenny, and I said “I’m working on this concert with Washington Performing Arts” so that’s how that developed. He said “great” and now he is doing three songs set to poetry by Sonia Sanchez also on the theme of the strength of women and powerful women, so I’m really looking forward to that concert.
OL – I’m getting a hint that you are one of those powerful women!
AC – [laughs hard] I certainly strive to be, yes!
OL - I have many ties with Brazil so I’m glad to see that you are singing the Bachianas Brasileiras by Villa Lobos. Please tell our readers about this beautiful work.
AC – Oh yes, the Bachianas! My first experience with the Bachianas was Renée Fleming’s CD, with her beautiful voice, and she sings the aria number five. It’s just gorgeous [she hums it]. I would listen to that in college in constant repeat. Sometimes I would fall asleep to it. I was just completely obsessed with this piece. It was never performed during my undergraduate. I came to New York and then I got a contract to sing it for the first time. I don’t remember where. I thought “Oh, I get to sing it! I get to sing it!” I was so excited. I found people who spoke the language so that I’d be accurate, of course, and coached it. Now it’s been a piece that I’ve sung on and off throughout the years with various symphonies. I just adore it.
OL – Have you ever thought of trying to go to Brazil to perform it?
AC – I’d love to go to Brazil to perform it! If someone would have me, I’d be there on the first flight! [laughs]
OL - How was the experience of performing for the Justices of the US Supreme Court?
AC – That was tremendous. I think it was in the fall of 2010 or 2011, I’m not sure. Barry Tucker, who of course runs the Richard Tucker Music Foundation, he is very close with Justice Ginsburg who is a huge supporter and lover of opera. She hosts these things every year, I believe they are called - The Monday Musicale at the Supreme Court, is the title, so Matthew Polenzani and I…
OL – Oh, Matthew, I love him. I interviewed him twice and kept in touch.
AC – He is great; he is really wonderful. So, we were invited to sing, and it is very intimate, only a hundred people at the Supreme Court. All the justices were there except for one, and it was really just delightful. Each sang a couple of song cycles, the ones that we loved, and did a couple of duets and some show tunes, and then we had dinner with Justice Ginsburg in her chambers, and it was amazing. I had met Justice Ginsburg just once before, at an opening night here. Since, I’ve come to know her not only here at the Kennedy Center at various opera functions, but I’ve also seen her up at Glimmerglass, and I’ve developed a wonderful friendship with her son and daughter-in-law. Her son runs CDs, he is the founder of Cedille Records in Chicago, and we’ve become close. I’m so appreciative of her! Not only she is an amazingly strong woman that I admire in so many ways, but I was a voice major in college and Sociology pre-Law, and I did consider going into Law School and becoming a lawyer, and she was one of the people that I looked up too, so to find out years later in the middle of my operatic career that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is this lover of opera and so passionate about it and such a big supporter and champion, has meant a lot to me. I feel honored to have sung for all of the Justices, and I feel particularly honored to have developed a friendship with Justice Ginsburg; she is really outstanding.
OL – Yes, and so smart! You were the featured artist in the Soul Train Music Awards; we look forward to watching it on BET channel on November 30. How was it?
AC – This was one of the – honestly – real highlights, because it is so different from what any opera singer has done before! It’s on a pop culture medium. I sang at the Marian Anderson celebration which was hosted by the Washington Performing Arts and BET back in May or June, and they asked me if I’d also host this documentary for them, and I said “of course, I’d be happy to” and I was interviewing Jessye Norman, Dionne Warwick, all these luminaries of both opera and the pop world. I had a meeting with the head of the network, and he said “you know, we are doing the Soul Train Music Awards, and we’ve never ever featured an opera singer, and opera is as much a part of African-American culture as R&B and Soul; it has its place as well and I think that it should be celebrated in this award show; would you like to perform?” I thought “oh my gosh, this is the coolest thing ever!”
I’m really excited for people to see the show because I’m not crossing over in a crazy way; I’m actually representing for opera. The show opens with me singing a little bit of “Quando m’en vo” with this interesting waltz that Ray Chew who is music director and works in “American Idol” and “Dancing with the Stars” has created, so there is this weird, eerie thing: I’m singing opera, there is a waltz going on in the background, and then it changes, and it’s myself and a classical pianist, and we have this vocalize-piano conversation, back and forth with heightened drama, and I’m doing these arpeggios and what-not, and it culminates in this giant high C sharp at the end, and then the music completely shifts, and a hip-hop rap beat comes into the background but I keep singing opera, and I’m singing basically a take on the original Soul Train song but in operatic voice, and it just turned out to be so cool, I can’t wait to see the broadcast once all the editing is done!
My experience at the end of the day was: there was this handful people who knew me from the Marian Anderson concert, the people at the network who knew how I sang and what I did, but the night of the actual taping of the show, there was this entire arena of 3,000 people, most of whom had never heard opera before, and I walk on the stage, and I was just overwhelmed with the reaction of people who are really from pop culture, who just said, “oh my gosh; wait; that’s opera?” Yes, that’s opera! Renée Fleming singing at the Super Bowl; Joyce DiDonato singing at the World Series, people hearing classically trained voices in these places where they are not used to hearing it, I’m hoping it’s sinking in, and I’m honored to have been asked to be part of this show. I cannot wait for everybody to be exposed to opera in this way; and it is cool and different.
OL – You did something like that as well: singing the National Anthem for 48,000 people in a Brewers-Yankees game must have been such an experience! Any interesting memories from that event to share with us?
AC – Yes, 48,000 people; crazy! I have to say, I was very excited to be singing the anthem at this game, because it was one of the Yankees last games, and I am a Yankees fan and particularly a Derek Jeter fan! [laughs]
OL – Me too, by the way!
AC – It was awesome! I had sung at a Washington Nationals game here, but this was something. The stadium is just massive and it was completely full because it was a Yankees game. I had my entire family and my fiancée, everybody was out there on the field. It was great to sing the National Anthem in front of athletes I respect so tremendously.
OL - Other than your musical degrees, you hold a Sociology degree. Has it informed your take on opera, in any way?
AC – I’ll say more than anything, my getting two degrees and going to school for more than just music has informed me as a human being, the most. What I feel enhances me as a music artist is that I didn’t go to school in a vacuum of only music. I studied Sociology, I studied race, class, gender, law, all these things I’ve always been interested in and always passionate about, so when I come to any role, I’m not coming at it just as a student of music, but as a student of life. I think it has served me well in terms of being very disciplined in how I approach things because I was writing my honors thesis the same time that I was preparing my senior recital. It has made me learn very much how to allot my time, because when you are a double degree student at a major conservatory and college, it’s a lot of work, and you’ve got to figure out a way to balance it all, and that happens in your career as well, no matter if you are a musician or a lawyer, and that is a skill that I certainly learned in my studies. I’m thankful for that.
I love that I have another degree. I was asked by my senior year at Oberlin by the school newspaper, “Alyson, are you going to law school or are you going to the conservatory? Where do you see yourself in five years?” I said, “I’m graduating with honors in both things, and I have my law school applications ready to go, and I also have two applications to Curtis and Juilliard. If I get into Curtis or Juilliard I’ll give myself five years to make it. I want to make my Metropolitan Opera debut by the time I’m 25.” The interviewer laughed at me and said “oh ho ho, that’s quite a goal!” and I said “well, I think I can do it, and if I don’t then I’ll go to law school, but I’ll give it a shot.” A couple of years later I made my Met debut, and here we are now! [laughs].
OL – So much focus, it’s amazing! All planned!
AC – Yes! [laughs] And there’s a lot that you can’t plan in this career; there is so much that is up in the air, but those things, for me anyway, it’s been really important to have goals and have focus. It’s kept me in good stead. [laughs]
OL – I have to say, I’ve interviewed some 145 artists already and I’m having more fun than with most of them; you are so entertaining!
AC – [laughs] Oh, good! Thank you!
OL - You are from a family with mixed ethnic and cultural background – you are of Caribbean, African, Scandinavian, and American descent. Does this make of you a better artist?
AC – Oh, I’ve never been asked this question! [Thinks] I’ll sort of piggy-back on my last answer. I think it makes me a more interesting person, because my experience in life has been that of a mixed-race, multi-culture, multi-ethnic person. I grew up in the Washington, DC area in a time when there were not people on television or on the operatic stage that looked like me. I was asked many questions – “we don’t understand, why is your dad black, why is your mom white? Why is your hair this way? Why are your eyes that color? Why does you dad speak with an accent?” When you are a young child – all through elementary school I was asked these questions – my parents never raised me to look at race or class or anything like that. They just raised my brother and I like human beings, so I learned about what prejudice was and what stereotypes were from everybody else. I learned it from my peers and classmates, and from their parents - I could hear whispers. So I came home and talked to my parents about these experiences and said “this girl called me this name today, this person asked me why my skin is this color today.” We had honest conversations, but those things are some of the things, actually, that made me a stronger person. As I grew up and as I continued to face these kinds of questions and prejudices in different areas and from different communities, I always chose just to be true to myself – never to deny any part of my heritage. Sometimes people who are uncomfortable, they want you to choose. “But your father is Caribbean and African, so you are black; that’s what you are.” And I said “Yes, but I also eat æbleskiver and lefse which are Danish treats.” I said “I’ll cook that one day and then I’ll make jerked chicken the next night.” I’m both things. I’m equally both, it’s all part of me. I don’t want to deny either part of that.
In terms of an artist, yes, if I’m singing a scene where somebody is ridiculing me or something as my character, yeah, I can tap into those moments when that happened to me, Alyson Cambridge. You’ll understand it if you’ve ever felt ostracized in any way. For example, Julie in Show Boat, she is a mixed-race character; she is half-black and half-white but she has been passing for white from the beginning of the show, and she is married to a white man which is illegal at that time. I can absolutely relate to that. In times when it’s been unintentional, I’ve been in conversations with somebody, and they don’t realize that I am half-black and they will say a racist comment.
OL – Wow!
AC – Oh yes, and it has happened in several occasions. I have to make that decision, depending on the times or circumstances: “Alyson, do you say something? Do you make an issue; do you say – excuse me, I’m half black, don’t you say that!” There have been times when I wasn’t able to say that because I didn’t feel safe. Somebody said something maybe in a hostile way and I said to myself “OK, Alyson, this is not the time.” I remember a man in a taxi cab who yelled a racist comment to somebody else on the street and I was sitting on the back, and he turns back to me and says “those black people, ta ta ta ta” and I just thought “OK, he is upset, he is aggressive, let me just get to where I am going, and get out of this cab.” But it stuck with me, and I was walking into a Show Boat rehearsal that day, and I went up to Francesca, the director, and said “you wouldn’t believe what just happened. I just had a Julie moment.” He had no idea that he had a half-black woman sitting on the back of his taxi cab, and he was making these comments and speaking to me as if I were a white racist person. These things do inform me. They do enhance my performances in many ways.
At the end of the day, though, I think that the biggest lesson that it’s taught me is to be accepting and embracing of your heritage and all the things that you are. I’m so thankful for my parents! They are outstanding. They got married in a time when it was illegal in many states for them to be married, and certainly looked down upon. My mom was from a small town in Minnesota, Danish-Norwegian, my father from Guyana, and they got together and had this life together, and have maintained so much strength, and they have now supported me and my career, which to many people seems so crazy – “you want to be an opera singer?” – and they’ve been so great and supportive! I’m thankful for all the parts of me.
OL - Was music very present in your family, growing up? Tell us about your encounter with classical music and opera.
AC – I listened to all kinds of music, growing up. My father would play a lot of calypso, reggae, soca, jazz, disco, and then my mom would listen to a ton of opera. That’s how I first learned about it, because she would play opera on stereo and I would imitate anybody that I heard. I’d imitate opera singers, pop singers… Somebody was at our house one day and said “you know, Alyson, that’s not half-bad, you sound pretty good even though you are just doing it as a joke; you should better start taking voice lessons.” It’s sort of how it all began. I took voice lessons, because I would imitate this opera that I heard on the radio.
OL - You won several prestigious competitions including the biggest of them all, the Met National Council Auditions. How was this experience for you? Nerve-wrecking but exhilarating? What doors were open after that?
AC – I’ll say what I’ve said to so many people – I won the Met National Council competition when I was 23. I was in my second semester at the Curtis Institute. I had just started grad school. I had no clue what I was getting into. I was fresh out of college, went to Curtis, and Gayletha Nichols, the head of the National Council Auditions, she heard me singing a master class at Curtis. She said “honey, have you ever considered doing the Met competition?” I said “oh no, I’m much too young, I need to wait.” She said “I think you should audition this year.” I said “really?” So I asked my teacher and she said “if she told you to audition, then you audition!” So I did the audition and in each round I kept winning and advancing. I was working really hard, I was very focused, but I didn’t go in with expectations. I don’t think I really knew the enormity of it. And then when I got to New York and I walked into the Met, and I was coaching and doing all these things with the staff, then it really started to hit me. And then that first day, rehearsing with the orchestra… I remember, I was the youngest one that year. It was the last year when the cut-off was I think 32 or 33. Everybody was a bit older than I was. And they said “you are 23??” and I just said “yeah” and sang my heart out. I thought “I’ll just go out there and sing the best that I can.” I remember that I sang Manon’s gavotte, and the aria from I Capuleti e i Montecchi and I sang about twenty-five high Ds in my dressing room before I went out. I kept saying “OK, I got it” and kept singing the note, and my teacher said “pussycat, stop it! You got to save some for the stage!” I said, “No, I got to practice the high notes!” I just went out there and had so much fun and thought “it’s so great to sing with the Met orchestra!” When they called my name as the winner I went “Ohhhhh!” and my life just changed! It really changed, after that. Doors were open. There were people who had never heard of me before; I was this kid. Then the Met asked me to come and sing for maestro Levine and to audition to be part of the Young Artist Program and they accepted me on the spot. My first thought was “but I have another year at Curtis!” and everybody said “Alyson, go!”
OL – You don’t turn that down!
AC – Right! [laughs] So off I went, and spent the next three years in the Young Artists Program, and sang many roles there over eight seasons. It was the kind of training that I liken in some ways to boot camp for singers, because you are thrown in; you go from school to arguably the number one opera house in the world and you see the best of the best every single day! It’s quite an experience. There is no question it opened a lot of doors to me and I’m extremely grateful for that launch that it gave me for my career.
OL - You are very active in charity. Tell us about your most cherished charitable pursuits.
AC – I am very involved in charity. There are a couple of organizations that I’ve been associated with for quite some time. The first one is Sing for Hope, which was actually founded by two of my very close friends, two sopranos, Monica Yunus and Camille Zamora. It was founded maybe seven years ago and it has just blossomed into one of the best New York charities. I remember their first gala fundraiser was a small little New York space, and now it is this huge event every year raising millions of dollars for making the arts accessible to all. That sounds like a grand statement, but the truth is, it makes arts – music, dance, theater, everything – accessible to people who wouldn’t usually have access to it. It exposes the joy and the love and the healing power, really, of the arts. I’ll go into hospitals, nursing homes, underprivileged schools and I’ll sing. Last year especially around the holidays, they have a group that goes around; we go into all these different hospitals, and we sing carols, and sometimes the patients will sing with us; other times I’ll go in with a pianist and another singer and we’ll do a 45-minute recital, and anybody who is around can come in.
I’ll never forget. The most amazing time, I was doing a recital at a hospital on the Upper East Side, and there was a man. The nurse wheeled him out and he had an oxygen tank. He had so much trouble breathing, and looked like he was really in pain. I was singing for ten minutes, and it was something popular like an aria from Bohème, and he just sort of looked up, and I saw his face literally go from pain to happiness, to calm, to peace. I almost lost it right then and there, because I was so aware of his presence, and he sat there for the rest of the thing just looking happy for that moment. This is why we sing. This is why we do what we do, because it’s powerful and moves people, and changes lives.
So Sing for Hope is huge and is my main charity, but I’ve also done quite a bit of work with the Humane Society of New York. I have a small little dog that I’m obsessed with and she travels with me a lot, and I see what joy and love I get from her, from my little dog, and I just thought “I want to do what I can to help protect animals, and their rights in shelters, and get animals adopted,” so I’ve done quite a bit of work with them in several charity functions to raise awareness.
OL - Nice. Now, a question about looks: you are a very beautiful lady.
AC – Oh, thank you! [laughs]
OL - How do you feel about the emphasis on looks in today’s visual media operatic environment? Not everybody is blessed, like you, with both great looks and great voice. What would you say to your less fortunate colleagues or to young singers trying to break into the business?
AC – Well, a couple of things. Thank you very much for saying that. The first thing is, there are some things that nature gives you, for sure: thanks, mom and dad! I also work really hard. I work out, I exercise, I eat well, I always try to present myself very well. It’s something I’ve always liked to do. I was a fashionable kid, and I’m a believer in the fact that if you look good and you feel good about yourself and your presentation, you present that to the world and the world can feel that about you. That’s sort of my own personal philosophy.
Photo credit Enrique Vega - fair promotional use
In terms of the emphasis on looks in the business now, I’m of two minds. I think that in this day of a hyper awareness and obsession with celebrity and pop culture, looks, fashion, I think the opera world is sort of catching up in realizing that if we want to draw in a younger and new audience we’ve got to give people something that is visually stimulating as well as aurally. When you have these HD broadcasts and what-not and people say “oh, they are looking just at the looks and not at the voices” or whatever, I understand to an extent where they are coming from. That said, opera is about singing. Opera is about the voice. I don’t care how beautiful you are or how handsome you look without your shirt on; if you can’t sing, that’s what people are going to come away with; they are going to say “I don’t care how great she looked in her costume; she couldn’t hit the notes.” So, you’ve got to find a balance.
I think especially in my generation of singers and the singers coming up, you see a lot less of the old stereotypes of the opera singers. You have a lot more people who do take care of themselves, and take care to look their best and be in good shape and what-not. But that doesn’t mean that there is not a place and there won’t always be a place for people who maybe don’t look a certain way. If you have a voice, you have a voice, and I don’t think anybody in the opera world will ever deny it, because that is what this is about.
For younger singers trying to break into the business I would say “number one, make sure you’ve got your voice in order. Number two, take care of yourself. Be aware of the changing climate, and do what you can to present yourself the best. Don’t do anything that is going to sacrifice your instrument or your voice, but do what you can do to present the best image.” For example, even in the Soul Train Music Awards, I did not know that people and the presenters at BET prior to doing the Marian Anderson, they hired me based off my website. They heard a couple of clips and they saw some really nice pictures and thought “oh, she will look nice on camera.” But I showed up and I sang, and then they said “ah ha!” So while somebody may have thought that I was attractive and thought “oh she will be good on TV,” that may have opened the door; but what got me the job was my voice. I think that’s the lesson in all of it.
OL – Excellent answer. You are a former athlete and fitness enthusiast – that’s got to be helpful for a stage performer. Tell us about it.
AC – Yes, indeed. It is really helpful. So, for example in this production of La Bohème, Musetta walks around, flings her gloves, throws her plate, then she has to travel, go up some steps, stand on top of the bar, and then because it is “Quando m’en vo” you’ve got to be grounded, centered, low breath. You can’t feel out of air because it’s a quick rush across the stage, so the fact that I run every day is great. Anything physical I do seems relatively light compared to my normal work-out.
In this day and age there are a lot of new racy, crazy productions, and the costuming sometimes [laughs] can be a bit revealing! When I did Thaïs at the Met, I’ll never forget, I saw the costume, and it was totally bare in the midriff, and all I could think was “it’s a good thing I do my sit-ups every day!” [laughs] So it does come in handy, and at the end of the day I feel very comfortable in my physical being, and for any performer, it’s very helpful. I feel strong, secure, and grounded in my physical appearance.
OL - You are involved with luxury products and fashion – quite the multi-talented lady. This sounds like fun.
AC – Yes! Because I do love fashion, and whenever I go out to work functions or social and personal functions I always dress up and like to wear great new fashion. Honestly when I meet people, nobody ever thinks that I’m an opera singer. People have the old image of what an opera singer is supposed to look like – the large lady with the horns – so I’ll be at some sort of function and I’ll introduce myself and somebody will say, “oh, that’s a nice dress” or “those are nice boots” or whatever, “what do you do?” expecting me to say “I’m an actress” or “a model” and I say “oh, I’m an opera singer.” They go “come again? What did you just say?” “I’m an opera singer.” And it leads into this whole conversation, and really organically through social functions I have met people who work in the PR departments for fashion designers or for jewelry companies and we get to talking, and it just naturally evolves.
Photo credit Enrique Vega - fair promotional use
They say “if you are ever interested in wearing some of our gowns or some of our jewelry for your performances, please let us know” and that’s how it happened; I just forged these really lovely relationships with designers and jewelers, and I’m very thankful because also in this day and age of YouTube and the Internet, you can’t wear something twice, right? [laughs] So you’ve always got to have a new gown and a new this and a new that, so I’m really grateful to the designers who loan me these really beautiful pieces to wear on the red carpet and at concerts and shows; it’s definitely a nice perk of the job!
OL - With so many pursuits and unique background, you seem to be a very interesting woman. Please tell us about your personality and take on life.
AC – You know what? I will say now, more than ever before, that I am and feel very free; free to express myself and to work in different media. I love opera; I’m naturally, though, a very curious person in art and in life. There have been in the past two years some opportunities that have presented themselves to me that I might have been too scared to take before, because I’d be afraid of maybe offending someone in the opera community; something like that. Now I don’t feel that fear. I feel like I’m in a place in my opera career where I feel good and grounded, although I’m still trying to achieve new things, debut new roles, and sing in new houses, but I also have these other things, and I’m open to other opportunities that I’m excited to explore, and that’s me. That’s the truth: I’ve never been somebody that fits in a box. I don’t. I’m somebody who doesn’t fit in a square box. I like to color outside of the lines, a little bit, and be me, and that’s sort of my take on life. When I get to do that, I’m my best me. I get to show my personality and my art, and I love it. That’s the best feeling.
OL - What do you like to do in your spare time? What are your hobbies or extra-musical interests?
AC – Well, besides working out and spending time with my friends, I’m very social. I love cooking. Actually I’ve just hosted a dinner party three or four nights ago for the entire cast, and I cooked my specialty, jerked chicken and curried couscous and vegetables. I made my signature cocktail.
OL – What is that?
AC – It’s silly, it’s a special drink called the SG33. To go into its origin and how I came up with that name, it dates back to college, and it sort of became my signature cocktail, so whenever I’m in a show with a great cast – and we got such a great cast here; everybody is social! – I like to have everybody over and cook my special meal for them. I love people. I love being around people, so when I’m at home in New York or in Chicago which is where my fiancé and his family are, I just love to spend time with my friends and family. I love shopping maybe a little too much [laughs]. Just enjoying the people in my life; that’s what is important to me, because if you don’t have your friends and your family to share it all with, what do you have?
OL – That was our last question. Thank you for a lovely interview!
AC – This was so nice! Can we do a picture together?
[Alyson was the first singer who wanted a souvenir picture of the interview, not just the other way around! She took one with her smartphone, and said she had a great time talking with Opera Lively, which of course is a mutual feeling; what a nice artist and person!]
Let's listen to the singer in Vissi d'Arte:
Now, in an aria from Massenet's Herodiade:
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