In a wide-ranging, in-depth interview, the American mezzo shares her thoughts on her art and her life.
Mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong is an interviewer’s delight. Not only does she have a beautiful voice that brings audiences to their feet, she has the razor-sharp intellect, the analytical mind, and the level-headedness that allow her to bring meaning to everything she does onstage and off, to stay focused on what is important to her, as an artist and a person. Articulate and insightful, serious-minded yet friendly and cordial, my chat with her was a joy.
DeShong is well-known to Toronto opera fans, having sung here on three previous occasions. Her COC debut was as Hermia in Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the spring of 2009. This was followed by Angelina in the scintillating production of La cenerentola in 2011, and as Suzuki in Madama Butterfly in the fall of 2014. And now she’s back in town to sing her first ever Calbo, in a Rossini rarity, Maometto secondo. A concert artist when she’s not putting on costume and makeup, DeShong was in town last December, making her Toronto Symphony Orchestra debut as the alto soloist in Messiah, under the baton of Sir Andrew Davis.
JS: First of all, welcome back to Toronto! Since this is your fourth time with the COC, can you tell us your impressions of singing at the COC?
ED: I’ve always found the Toronto audiences and the staff at Canadian Opera Company to be tremendously supportive and enthusiastic. The Four Seasons Centre is a lovely space. The sense of community very much reminds me of my time at Lyric Opera of Chicago. Whenever I return to the COC, I am greeted by familiar, smiling faces. It sets the tone for the artistic collaboration ahead.
JS: You’ve sung in some very large opera houses, like the Met, Chicago, San Francisco. Our house here is relatively small at just over 2,000 seats. And it has very good acoustics. Do you make adjustments vocally to the different sized houses?
ED: Getting used to the particular acoustics in each opera house is an important part of the rehearsal process. In a good acoustic, the size of the house is almost an afterthought. You can sense your voice in the hall from the stage. This is not always the case, however, and in those circumstances, you have to learn to trust the hall to avoid pushing your voice, and, at times, be more pragmatic about where you sing on the stage. The Met is a particularly wonderful house for the singer.
JS: Let’s talk a little about your background and how you got into this profession. You grew up in small town Pennsylvania, and went to Oberlin for your undergrad in voice, and then to Curtis. When did you take your first voice lesson?
ED: That’s a little hard to say, probably my sophomore in high school. Kathleen Osborne is my first voice teacher. From there I went to Daune Mahy in Oberlin. I still see her from time to time — and will this June, for a little check-in. Daun gave me my foundation as a singer for sure. I also studied with Marlena Malas.
JS: Have you always had a low voice? Did you sing in a choir, growing up?
ED: Yes, the low notes…my original comfort zone [laughs]. I’ve always sung in a choir. I think it’s tremendously important. My father is a United Methodist Church minister, so I grew up singing in church, but also in my school choir in elementary school and as an undergraduate. I’ve always been comfortable in the low part of my voice. I started out singing mostly contralto rep when I first started.
JS: So do you go down to a low G?
ED: I can sing a little lower than that if I have to! F is probably where I want to stop… G healthy. Whatever note you’re willing to sing in public you must have a good solid whole step above (or below) it that’s just as comfortable. It can’t be the last note you’ve got! My comfort zone above an “A” came later, after Oberlin and onto graduate school at Curtis.
JS: You made your professional opera debut as Hansel at Glyndebourne?
ED: If you don’t count the roles as a young artist or at Wolf Trap, then I suppose Hansel at the Glyndebourne tour was my professional debut. I had just finished at the Ryan Opera Center in spring of 2008, so it would have been the fall of 2008.
JS: But I read somewhere that you sang as early as 2002…
ED: That might have been my debut with the Cleveland Orchestra. It was my first professional orchestra. I was so fortunate; they had the role of the narrator in Debussy’s Damoiselle élue Felicity Lott was the soprano. That started my relationship with the Cleveland Orchestra. They had me do the Durufle Requiem and then Beethoven 9th.
JS: Wow, not too many people can claim to have made a debut with this piece, and with Felicity Lott!
ED: It was a tremendous experience, to sing in that wonderful Severance Hal… I can’t even say how grateful I was.
JS: You moved from central Pennsylvania to Akron, Ohio. Is that where home is now?
ED: Yes, it is. We lived six years in Chicago when I was at the Ryan Center. After that, we wanted to be closer to one of our families and with the access to two airports (Akron and Cleveland).
JS: Is your partner, Ryan Albrecht, also a singer?
ED: Yes, he’s a tenor. We met as singers at Oberlin, in the same voice studio. But he’s a recording engineer. He has the technical abilities and has always been computer oriented. It was a logical transition.
JS: So he understands the demands of a classical music career…
ED: He does, but that doesn’t make the logistical demands any easier, but he understands what a singer has to do to protect the voice, stay healthy, etc. He understands that.
JS: Singing opera is a tough profession, isn’t it…
ED: There are lots of rewards, but it does ask a lot of you. I say that to young singers – I tell them “I won’t discourage you, but if there’s anything else you can see yourself happy doing, think long and hard about it. You get a lot of education (studying to be a singer). You can become a doctor in the time that it takes to become a singer, all the training programs and young artist programs when you wait for your voice to mature. There are lots of other things you can accomplish that can guarantee you something at the end.
JS: When you were studying, was there anything that you would have been happy doing, other than singing?
ED: I never look back. I’ve always known I had to be in music. I think I could have found numerous other ways to be in music….
JS: Perhaps music education?
ED: That wasn’t a goal of mine, but I do love to teach when I’m asked to work with young artists. I am happy to do that. I never took time off from pursuing what I wanted. I think that’s part of it. You have to have such a drive… there’s always somebody else who wants to do what you’re doing. There are a lot of talented people out there.
JS: Maybe I missed it when I was doing research on you, I don’t recall seeing any mention of competitions in the material on you.
ED: I did the local ones; I won the ones in Chicago such as the Musicians Club of Women, and I did some when I was an undergraduate. Really before I could enter the Met competition, I worked there, so it’s over. You are literally not allowed… you wouldn’t do it anyway.
JS: So many singers tell me that competitions jump-started their careers, but you didn’t need it to get started.
ED: Competition can be great for that, but there’s a risk – being very young, doing a competition, and all of a sudden, because of the buzz, you get pushed into things that you are not ready for. It’s very easy to become a flash in the pan, to make a big splash too soon. You’re offered a role and it seems like a great opportunity, but maybe you just aren’t seasoned enough to do that role. But you feel you have to take it because it’s offered.
JS: Let’s talk a little about your upcoming show — Is Calbo in Maometto a new role for you? Can you tell us what appeals to you about this role?
ED: Yes, it’s my first time. I’ve done a lot of trouser roles and quite a bit of Rossini and Donizetti. The musical style is familiar to me. Now I’m adding the dramatic Rossini to my repertoire. Calbo has many dimensions to him. He comes across as a fighter, a warrior, someone eager to go to battle, to fight because of honour and duty. But when he’s confronted with Anna, he loses that edge, and he is tremendously emotional, tender and thoughtful. It’s so interesting how he shows the true love and respect for her. He’s a complex character, the soldier and the lover. Her father is pushing us into this union. I’ve put together my backstory for Calbo – maybe his father was killed in battle. He’s a close friend of Paolo Erisso, who has taken him under his wing, just like he has raised Anna. Anna and Calbo grew up side by side. There’s familial love and romantic love for Calbo. I think the reason his love is so selfless in the piece, even when she says I love another man, is because there’s that sense of duty and honour to the family.
JS: That’s an interesting analysis. I’ve noticed that you like to use a back story to help you delve into a character.
ED: Yes, I do. I think it’s important to fill in the gaps – it gives your text, and your relationships on stage more meaning. Even if the audience doesn’t see the specifics, I think they feel them. I really do believe it comes through.
JS: Having said that, Rosina would be difficult…
ED: [Laughs] — she’s more out front, more bubbly and “surfacey.” With Rosina I’d look more at her emotional spirit – it’s the spirit that’s important to capture. The same spirit is also in Angelina (La cenerentola). She’s just as keen and as motivated as Rosina. It’s important never to play Cenerentola as a victim. Even though she takes a different approach, she has the same strength of character. That’s the only way she can be a vital part of the show because she’s surrounded by strong characters.
JS: Since you sing a lot of trouser roles, like Calbo, I want to ask you – as a woman, how do you approach a trouser role? Do you enjoy singing trouser roles? You’re quoted as saying gender shouldn’t be front and centre. Focusing on gender would just lead to role stereotyping…
ED: I think to superficially impose masculine traits (on a character) is going to feel “put upon.” If you’re feeling the clothes you are wearing, if you are experiencing the situation you are in, and you know the relationships and how people are speaking and responding to you, it’ll happen naturally and without having to think that “I’m a man.” I’d like to inhabit a character that has a different perspective, so if something pushes my boundaries a certain way, I’m happy to do it. I won’t say I’m any happier playing a princess than a soldier… not at all.
JS: Maybe things have changed. I remember interviewing retired women singers some years ago, singers who sang in the 60’s and 70’s. A couple of them said they couldn’t say they enjoyed the acting part of trouser roles…
ED: I’d say I enjoy it. I am careful with my repertoire by doing a variety of things. I’m not speaking from the perspective of someone who has sung, say, Octavian for ten years, or only Cherubino. Keeping the variety, you don’t feel short-changed. Fortunately, with the flexibility of my voice, I have options…
JS: Have you always had that flexibility, that agility?
ED: It’s something that has come naturally to me, not something that I’ve had to work really hard. Just a good foundation for breath support, that’s just good technique. I have a big voice, but a big voice doesn’t mean it’s an inflexible voice. That’s how I’ve always been taught. I do know it doesn’t come naturally to everyone.
JS: You do have an unusual voice, from contralto lows all the way up to a high C. And you’re going to be doing Adalgisa in Chicago, and Isabella at the Met! Very high role and very low roles. Have you done the high mezzo roles like Octavian and the Komponist?
ED: I did the Komponist once in Wolf Trap when I had just finished the Ryan Opera Centre. I stepped in with a few days’ notice. I really enjoyed it. Because I am a pianist, they had me actually playing the piano with the orchestra. It kept me a part of the performance. I loved that! I’d love to do that again, to showcase that extra skill. It’s a nice way to keep the Komponist involved (in the opera).
JS: One thing I’ve noticed is that you haven’t sung a lot of new music…
ED: It just hasn’t come my way. I’d love to create a role – it’s sort of on the bucket list. I’ve done Adams’ Gospel According to the Other Mary. That’s as close as I’ve gotten (to new music). I love singing Adams. I sang the third secretary in Nixon in China in St. Louis. Learning the Berg was the hardest thing I’ve done.
JS: Since you are a pianist, I want to ask you – when you learn a new role, do you take it to a coach, or do it yourself on the piano?
ED: I do it on my own. Because of my piano skills, I do feel that I’m able to teach myself the music thoroughly, I can learn my part faster. I taught those three roles in Lulu to myself. There are tremendously wonderful coaches in the houses I sing in, and if I missed anything, someone will give me a correction, advice, whatever. I really do feel I can do it myself.
JS: Well, that tells me you are a very good musician! Besides, it saves you a lot of money…
ED: On a practical level it does save me a lot of money. I’m always happy to take someone’s thoughts when I’m at a job – it’s not for a lack of willingness to learn or to take an idea. For example, in regards to ornamentation, if I write it and it makes sense to me, being motivated dramatically by my own mind and through my own voice, it’s going to be that much better. If I make it up, it lives and breathes with me. If someone else gives it to me, I can make it feel natural but it’s going to take an extra step. So I enjoy creating on my own. Since I left the young artist program, I’ve taught my rep to myself.
JS: Wow, that’s very impressive! But let’s say when you’re learning a new role, not just the notes, but the whole role. Would you take it to someone who’s famous in that role, a famous Rosina, Angelina, Isabella, for example?
ED: Probably not…
JS: Really? Don’t you want their interpretation?
ED: That’s not to say I couldn’t gain something from knowing what they’ve done. But at the same time, I never listen to a piece before I’ve learned it. It’s very easy, with a musician’s ear, to latch onto something and mimic it without meaning to.
JS: What if it’s a role you’ve never heard before? Would you listen to a CD?
ED: I would get the score, and if no score is available, then I’ll listen to some clips. There’s no way to know if something is right for me until I sing it. Listening only gets you so far. You have to know your own voice, what the demands are and how it feels. I know there are things to learn from others who’ve done it, but I just want to make those choices myself.
JS: That’s a very courageous way of doing it. I’ve talked to singers who tell me they would take it to the most famous exponent of the role, hoping to “learn from the master.” Maybe it has something to do with getting the “seal of approval” so to speak. We all do things differently…
ED: Sure. I would never say my way is the right way – everybody has to find their own inspiration, own way of working that suits them. It’s just what’s best for me.
JS: I noticed that you’re singing lots of new roles. Do you try to have new roles every season?
ED: It seems like it [laughs]! This past season was exceptional in that way. I had the three roles in Lulu, Fenena in Nabucco at the Lyric, Arsace in Semiramide in Bordeaux; now I’ve come here for Calbo. In that many months in one season, I had six new roles.
JS: What is your process in learning a new role?
ED: I’ll play it on the piano first. I’ll sing along with it, but I play it through.
JS: Before you even read the background information on the piece?
ED: Yes, it’s amazing how much the score will tell you. I’d like to have the musical reference first because that’s the emotional undercurrent that feeds the words. So if I have that understanding when I put the words in, my vocal line will shape itself properly, it all naturally comes together in one process.
JS: You mentioned in an interview that the best thing about this career is you enjoy the travel. After a few years of this, do you still feel the same way?
ED: I do. That’s not to say I don’t miss my bed! Being home for more than five weeks a year would be nice. I’m grateful to be busy so it’s not a complaint. I still think travel is one of the best gifts you can give yourself whatever your profession. Part of the appeal of being in opera is the global access, learning about people, living in places with people who you wouldn’t get to know about otherwise. It breeds compassion, it only positively affects your artistry, to have new perspectives, new understandings. Travel really is the best gift, and the world would be a better place if they get out of their comfort zone and experience more of the world. I do understand that this isn’t financially possible for a lot of people. Without this career, I’d be in the same position, but fortunately, this job provides that. As much as music is a gift, I think the travel and understanding that comes with it is a gift of equal measure.
JS: I often ask an artist this question at the end of an interview – What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given, the advice that serves as a guiding light for you, as an artist and a person?
ED: [Pause] I think it was Marlena Malas who gave this piece of advice, one summer when I was at Chautauqua – “keep your mouth shut, and your ears open.” That may sound humorous, but really there’s a lot of wisdom in that. In a young artist program, you should be watching and listening; you should be learning. That’s the great gift a young artist program can give you, the ability to watch other artists, watch them succeed, and watch them, sometimes, fail. To see what works, to see how the voice navigates a run of shows; how someone presents himself each day, walks into a rehearsal, how does this person make everyone feel. Is it an environment of creativity? Are they creating a healthy environment? Or are they alienating other people? What is successful about their artistry? [A young artist program] is the only place where you can learn that skill. To allow yourself not always to be visible, but to be a part of things, and to learn.
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