OK, so, we interviewed the lovely, pretty, friendly, articulate, and intelligent Alyson Cambridge who is singing Musetta, and oh boy, she can sing! Here is a teaser - the parts she talks about La Bohème, in about 18 minutes. Another hour of questions and answers will complete this interview - stay tuned for the full interview with artistic biography, schedule, clips, etc.
Alyson Cambridge during her exclusive Opera Lively interview, photo by Luiz Gazzola/Opera Lively
This fragment of an exclusive interview with Alyson Cambridge is copyrighted to Opera Lively and can only be reproduced with authorization (use the Contact Us form).
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?
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.