Belle of bel canto: internationally-acclaimed mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong, whose critically-lauded interpretation of Adalgisa anchors North Carolina Opera’s concert performance of Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma on 21 October 2018
[Photograph © by Kristin Hoebermann; used with permission]
Her beauty, her voice, and her dramatic genius [have] long been the theme of universal admiration. The successor of Pasta, the rival of Malibran, and the contemporary of Jenny Lind...
It was with these and a plethora of additional words that the editors of The London Review and Weekly Journal of Politics, Literature, Art, and Society, in an article dated 27 July 1861, reverently bade farewell to the legendary Milanese singer Giulia Grisi, who had announced her retirement from staged opera. Almost three decades earlier, on 26 December 1831, Grisi chiseled her name in the annals of operatic history when she created the rôle of the Druid priestess Adalgisa in the world première of Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma. Although it was not as Adalgisa but as Norma that Grisi was heard in London, her British admirers’ parting paean echoed the plaudits that greeted her inaugural Adalgisa, a part in which many of her artistic successors have struggled. A century-and-a-half after Grisi’s death on 29 November 1869, however, those auspicious words of praise for the traits that defined Grisi in the hearts of her devotees—‘her beauty, her voice, and her dramatic genius’—might be used with equal validity to describe one of the few singers who embody Grisi’s legacy in the Twenty-First Century: American mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong.
Virtually every aspect of making a career as an internationally-renowned singer has changed drastically since Grisi left the stage, but a keystone of the native Pennsylvanian DeShong’s artistry that her illustrious predecessor would recognize is an uncompromising commitment to performing every rôle in her repertoire with musical fidelity and dramatic sincerity. Her technical acumen was undoubtedly shaped by her early study of the piano and later honed by her tenure at the prestigious Oberlin Conservatory of Music, but the innate musicality exhibited by DeShong’s singing cannot be taught by the most gifted mentor. Recipient of Washington National Opera’s 2010 Artist of the Year award, a distinction proved by her portrayal of Ruggiero in the company’s 2017 production of Georg Friedrich Händel’s Alcina [reviewed here] to have been wholly justified and a harbinger of triumphs to come, this glamorous lady has delighted audiences with the kind of electrifying singing that is now often feared to be endangered or even extinct. In the decade since her Metropolitan Opera début as Suzy in Giacomo Puccini’s La rondine, DeShong has joined the rosters of many of the world’s iconic opera companies, including the Wiener Staatsoper and London’s Royal Opera House. The Chicago Tribune asserted that ‘her velvety, focused and pliant vocalism supported a credible characterization’ of Adalgisa in Lyric Opera of Chicago’s 2017 production of Norma. On 21 October 2018, her Adalgisa comes to Raleigh for North Carolina Opera’s concert performance of Norma, offering Triangle-area bel canto aficionados a singular opportunity to hear a significant singer in a rôle that has often been compromised by insignificant singing. Milan had Grisi: felicitously, Raleigh has DeShong.
Far more advanced in experience than in years, DeShong exudes—both in performance and in conversation—comprehensive understanding of her goals, her methods of striving to meet them, and the importance of adapting them to reflect the realities not only of the voice but also of her emotional health. Surveying the path that she has traveled in her career to date, she is mindful of obstacles that she and other singers confront in the formative years of their professional lives. Not least among these challenges is the necessity of determining whether a singer’s career is an vocation or merely an avocation. Thinking of how she would counsel fellow singers questioning the wisdom of pursuing artistic careers, she says, ‘I would ask if they can picture doing anything else with their lives. If the answer is “yes,” I’d say that they should consider the alternate path. If the answer is “no,” my next question is, “Why do you sing?”’ This, she intimates, must be a critical element of an artist’s endeavor to attain self-awareness. She continues, ‘Even when [or] if you are successful in this business, you will have days, weeks, months, even years, when you will question [whether] the sacrifices are too great. This is a truth for me and a truth that I’ve heard from many, if not most, of the singers [whom] I know. We love the music, we are dedicated to our art and sharing it with others, and we see the tremendous advantage that living a global existence can provide to our personal worldview and overall human experience.’
Having garnered myriads of critical praise for her performances of a broad repertory of operatic rôles and concert pieces, DeShong is also uncommonly aware of the rewards that await a thoroughly-rehearsed, insightful artist. ‘There are moments of pure musical and dramatic magic that you will experience on stage, moments so joyful and blissful that the sacrifice of time and comfort will seem well worth it,’ she says. Still, she cautions, ‘the sacrifices are many, and, if you are discouraged at the beginning stages of your career, you may be in for a long and difficult journey.’ Heeding one’s own instincts is paramount, she insists, and fulfillment can only be achieved when one’s decisions are guided by an inviolable consciousness of one’s best interests. ‘Well-trained singers and instrumentalists have a lot to offer in areas other than performance. Your love of music and musical training can be channeled into so many valuable positions in artistic fields. Many of the best managers, directors, stage managers, artistic advisors, costume designers, et cetera come from performance backgrounds. Changing course is not a failure, and it doesn’t mean that your talent is “less-than.”’
Prima donna as primo uomo: mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong as Ruggiero in Washington National Opera’s 2017 production of Georg Friedrich Händel’s Alcina
[Photograph by Scott Suchman, © by Washington National Opera]
Stylistic versatility is a hallmark of DeShong’s work. There are many historical precedents for singers essaying very different rôles—in DeShong’s case, Händel’s Ruggiero and Suzuki in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, for example—and, like Grisi in Norma, eventually taking on multiple rôles in some operas. A principal consideration in DeShong’s repertory deliberations is whether an engagement is vocally, dramatically, and emotionally appropriate, such contests being decided by a multi-faceted analysis of suitability. ‘“Can I” versus “Should I” is tricky,’ the mezzo-soprano confides. ‘My particular instrument falls a bit outside of the normal framework, and it has afforded me the great luxury of having choices in repertoire and the timing of those choices.’
DeShong concedes that this luxury is not free from pitfalls. ‘I won’t pretend that this is always an easy choice for a singer to make,’ she states. ‘One has to pay the bills, so when the choice is “sing this role or starve,” there is little option. That said, there is also a mindset that can get singers into trouble. Emotions and desires can be tricky for an artist and can lead to decisions that make the heart/ego immediately happy but put vocal health in danger.’ Is there a template that she follows when assessing potential engagements? ‘My process, if you want to call it that, goes something like this: the rôle offer comes in; I head to the piano with the score and sing through the rôle,’ she states. Then, the self-interrogation begins. ‘How did my voice feel after [singing the rôle]? Which rôles am I scheduled to sing before and after this project? What size is the theatre [in which] I am being asked to sing the repertoire? Is the character as appealing as the music? [With whom] will I be singing the music?’
Answering these questions to her own satisfaction enables DeShong to retain a remarkable degree of control over the course of her career, adding new rôles to her operatic repertory according to her level of comfort with the music and the conditions under which she will sing it. That she sings a wide array of rôles compellingly indicates that DeShong’s philosophy is emphatically right for her. ‘Much of the dramatic mezzo and contralto repertoire is comfortable for me now,’ she says. ‘I will sing Amneris, Erda, Azucena, et cetera.’ After pausing for a moment, she elaborates with an air of contemplation. ‘I won’t go as far as to say I wouldn’t sing these rôles now, but the timing and surrounding factors would have to be right. It has always been my intention to sing as young as possible, as long as possible. If the option is there, why not explore as much repertoire as I can, while keeping my voice as healthy as possible?’
Vocal health is a boon that must be continually nurtured and safeguarded, DeShong believes. ‘Singing a lot of Händel, Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini has kept my voice flexible, even, and focused. The Humperdinck, Puccini, Strauss, Berg, Dvořák, Verdi, and other rôles have given me the variety that I crave and opportunities to prove that I am up for a challenge and refuse to be boxed into any one style.’ Many young singers rely upon platitudes as the defining precepts of their artistic personalities, but DeShong rejects generalities, preferring to devise her own specific artistic parameters.
Looking beyond the musical immersion that is a vital component of her method of learning new rôles, DeShong is also attentive to the practical motivations that fuel her drive to diversify her repertory. ‘I’ve touched on why I focus so much energy on variety. The challenge in doing this is, for me, primarily one of time and energy,’ she says. ‘There are moments when I envy singers who have three or so “go-to” leading rôles that they take all over the world. I’ve done my share of Suzukis and Hermias [in Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream], and it is always lovely to return to them. Aside from the fact that I love both of those characters dearly, they provide much-needed mental and physical breaks from the demands of the bel canto heroes [who] make up a larger and larger portion of my repertoire. Constantly adding new roles is exciting but exhausting.’
Turning her thoughts to Norma and the opera’s performance history, a history of which she is now so salient a part, DeShong is appreciative of the different qualities that celebrated interpreters have brought to the daunting title rôle. If she could sing Adalgisa alongside any of the great Normas of the past, who would she choose? ‘May I create a hybrid of two singers?’ she asks with characteristic candor. ‘I would take the dramatic intensity and use of text that Callas brought to Norma and infuse it with the poise, clarity, and warmth of sound that Caballé produced. Should we call her “Caballas”...Wait, doesn’t that translate to “mackerels” in Spanish?’ she laughs. Sí, ¡es verdad! ‘Okay, forget that!’
Mira, o Norma: mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong as Adalgisa in Lyric Opera of Chicago’s 2017 production of Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma
[Photograph by Cory Weaver, © by Lyric Opera of Chicago]
Its drama propelled by the fallout of two resilient women’s betrayal by the same man, Norma wields uncanny relevance in today’s atmosphere of hyper-charged sexual politics. In some performances of Norma, Adalgisa is little more than a second Norma, lacking depth and individuality. In her studies of the rôle, DeShong has examined Bellini’s score and Felice Romani’s libretto in search of Adalgisa’s true identity, and she expresses her conclusions with obvious affection for the lady she portrays. ‘Adalgisa is a young girl who knows that her person is defined by the strength of her character,’ she suggests. ‘She sees that the greater value is always in what does the most good for the most people, even at her own expense. She knows that her own happiness can never be gained at the expense of another.’
DeShong is astonishingly successful at imparting this sense of Adalgisa’s psyche in staged productions of Norma, but North Carolina Opera’s concert performance facilitates intensified concentration on revealing Adalgisa’s soul via her words and music. ‘For me, good singing can only happen with complete connection to the text,’ DeShong relays. ‘The text informs my vocalism, so that I can paint colors into my vocal line that best convey my character’s intention. Vocally, my Adalgisa in concert will be every bit as focused and dramatically driven as in a staged version. A benefit of concert versions of operas, especially of Norma, is that you can fully utilize your color palette. By avoiding some of the stage action, you are able to devote every bit of your physicality to the sound you are producing, which adds greater varieties of tempi and dynamics that are sustainable.’
As an intelligent, independent, proudly spirited woman, DeShong is sensitive to the chauvinistic implications of many of the operas that she sings, but she maintains that cognizance of the historical contexts of art is the sole means of reconciling the bothersome societal dilemmas of opera with modern notions of gender and personal responsibility. ‘It can be difficult to make peace with some of the toxic masculinity that drives many operas,’ she admits. ‘The stories represent bygone eras and the socially-accepted inequalities that were present at those times. That said, if you look closely at the characters, you can often find more complexities in the characters and plots than are explored in many productions.’ She sees this as one of opera’s most exciting avenues of continued growth. ‘We can find ways to present these stories that don’t lazily fall back on weak stereotypes and gender-biased comedy.’
What does this discerning artist perceive as her part to play in the ongoing evolution of opera as a cultural entity? ‘In a way, my voice type has freed me from portraying “victims,”’ she muses. ‘In fact, looking at the characters I’ve played, I don’t see any of them as being truly at the mercy of their male counterparts. For me, I just try to find the core being of the character I am playing. Gender is often a tertiary consideration. Calbo [in Gioachino Rossini’s Maometto secondo] can easily be played as a feminist. Arsace [in Rossini’s Semiramide] is an extremely sensitive guy. These men can be played as victims of their circumstances, forced to become soldiers in spite of their true desires and natures. It would be easy to simply assume a wide stance, grab a weapon, and create an one-dimensional portrayal. We are only as confined by the stereotypes as we want to be, in many instances.’ Nothing is more apparent in her performances than the fact that neither DeShong’s singing nor her thinking are confined by stereotypes.
Revisiting Adalgisa in preparation for North Carolina Opera’s Norma, in which performance her Adalgisa will be partnered by Leah Crocetto’s Norma and Chad Shelton’s Pollione, DeShong faces one of opera’s preeminent unanswered questions: how does Adalgisa’s story continue after Norma’s ends? ‘I’d like to think that some young composer is writing a feminist tale that shows Adalgisa returning to take Norma’s children and Clotilde away from the tragedy and starting a new life together,’ the mezzo-soprano declares. ‘Perhaps, together, Adalgisa and Clotilde would reinvent the ancient tenants of Druid priestess-hood by eschewing sacrifice by fire, revoking abstinence based [upon] devotion to deities, and reimagining the magic of the forest as a call to conservationism. The children would grow up to be thoughtful and progressive future leaders.’ Moreover, DeShong has a request for the composer who accepts this assignment: ‘Call me. I want to première that piece!’
That Giulia Grisi was an artist of enduring consequence and not merely the first but a definitive Adalgisa must now be taken on faith, but Elizabeth DeShong displays on and off the stage that she is an artist who, like the late Tatiana Troyanos, dedicates herself not to performing but to fully living music. She articulates this with typical humility and honesty. ‘In every performance, it is my goal to give the audience every bit of my being.’ Addressing her audience, she adds, ‘It is my hope that you will be consumed by the story, music, and character so much that you will forget Elizabeth DeShong in the moment. There are many who would probably advise against this goal. You’ll know it is me by my voice, but I hope we go to places none of us recognize, together.’ Every artist’s journey is unique, but, when asked whether there is a message that she would communicate to all young singers striving to find their own places in the operatic community, she responds, ‘Trust that you belong.’ Whether surrendering herself to music by Händel, Bellini, or Puccini, Elizabeth DeShong unequivocally belongs.
Figlio ed amante: mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong as Arsace in The Metropolitan Opera’s 2018 production of Gioachino Rossini’s Semiramide
[Photograph by Ken Howard, © by The Metropolitan Opera]
To learn more about Elizabeth DeShong’s career and upcoming engagements, please visit her official website.
Please click here to access more information or to purchase tickets for North Carolina Opera’s concert performance of Norma in Raleigh’s Meymandi Concert Hall.
Sincerest thanks to Ms. DeShong for her time, frankness, and wit and to Mindi Rayner of Mindi Rayner Public Relations for her invaluable assistance with this interview.