(Photo : Photo Credit: Kristin Hoebermann)
On Feb. 26, the Metropolitan Opera will revive the baroque pastiche "The Enchanted Island" for its second run at the historic house. Among the artists returning to the production is mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong. The singer/actress recently spoke with Latinos Post about her return to the role as well as her other work at the Met Opera this season.
DeShong performed the role of Hermia in the first run of the pastiche back in 2011-12. She noted that her involvement in that work was an "unofficial" debut of sorts for her. DeShong made her debut at the opera house as Suzy in the 2008 run of "La Rondine" and also played a priestess in "Aida" in 2009. However, she felt that "Enchanted Island" gave her a chance to truly express herself in a different way.
"'Enchanted Island' was really the first time I did a major aria at the Met," she said. "It was like having a proper debut. I was handed a full moment to show my range and a well-rounded character that got to speak.
"It was exciting to start act two and have an aria," she continued. "It was nice to have that faith placed in me. To come back from your first intermission and just give it your all."
The singer noted that despite being familiar with the production, she is approaching it as if its her first time.
"Whenever I approach a character for a second time I want to re-imagine it," she stated. "I want to think of it as being a first time. You try to hear everything fresh."
"I know the role. I am adding new touches and ideas," she added about how her interpretation has changed from the first run to this one. "I can approach her from a calmer place."
Interestingly, this is the second time that DeShong sings the role of Hermia at the Met this season. She also took on the role of the Shakespeare heroine in a run of Benjamin Britten's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" this fall. However, DeShong made it clear that she does not see the two Hermias as the same character.
"Fundamentally it is the same spirit. She is Shakespeare's 'Hermia,'" she stated. "However, her circumstances are different so she responds differently."
She noted that the "Midsummer" version of the character is not married and is running away from her family when the work starts.
"She has a lot at stake. In 'Enchanted Island' she's married. The deal is done," she explained. "Fundamentally she is in a much more settled start than she is in Midsummer."
She also noted that the characters undergo different senses of abandonment in each work.
"In 'Midsummer' when she wakes up from sleep she knows that her love was beside her. So she has a bigger sense of abandonment when she finds out he is gone," she stated. "In 'Enchanted Island,' they are separated. At first she doesn't recall. She thinks it was a dream. But then she realizes that the storm blew them apart."
"Enchanted Island" is the third role that DeShong is performing in 2013-14. She recently finished a run of Puccini's "Madame Butterfly" in which she played the role of Suzuki.
The Met Opera currently presents the late Anthony Minghella's beloved production of the work and DeShong noted that being involved with the production was a revelation for her.
"This production is... it is hard to put into words the magic that it has," she enthused. "It is down to the essentials. You get everything you want."
"You have nothing to hide behind. I think it exposes all of the feeling," she continued. "You don't care about a few pieces of furniture or screens. You experience everything in such a real and honest way."
The production also allowed DeShong to experience and perform Suzuki in a new way.
"In the past Suzuki for me has been played older. Almost like a mother figure," the singer explained. "But in this one I was asked to play her about five years older than Butterfly...A little more as a sister. She plays by the rules in the formality and social settings. But behind the scenes they are best friends, a sisterly sort of relationship. They fight like sisters and then the next moment they are back to being each others' only support system."
"It is nice to think of her in a new way."
DeShong also noted that she saw Suzuki as a mirror for the audience, a rather apt reference considering the mirrors that dominate Minghella's production.
"I do see Suzuki as an emotional mirror for the audience. In most production you have all the info that the audience has," she noted. "So you are a reflection of them. Even when Suzuki isn't speaking she is relaying all the info that the audience has. And that is an exciting challenge."
"I often feel that Suzuki speaks more in her silence than she does when she opens her mouth. Her listening and what is going on in her face and what she does or doesn't do, those are her big moments," she continued. "She is so active all the time. In reality she is so present for everything. She is emotionally invested at every moment in the piece. Like no one else.
"Butterfly goes through a full cycle, but in a way, I think Suzuki's emotional journey has more complexity than anyone else's. You just have to believe in her."
Early Musical Education
DeShong's career in the opera world started at a very early age. She noted that her parents, both non-professional musicians, were very supportive of her musical education and even performed at times with her.
"From the time I was little I always liked to perform," she revealed. "Whether it be at home for my parents sitting on the piano while my dad played and belting at the top of my lungs."
DeShong said that from an early age she knew that music was a major part of her professional destiny.
"I always new music was my path. I started out in third grade playing the piano and I had always sung," she revealed. "I sang in church and in school. But eventually when it came time to decide on a conservatory and my career path, I had both options."
She noted that she was so committed to both art forms that she even considered doing a double degree at Oberlin.
"I decided that both career paths require all of your attention to do them really well. It takes every ounce of commitment," she noted. "I knew piano would support voice. I play through the scores. I teach myself the score through the piano."
She also noted that piano recitals were a nerve-wracking experience for her.
"I don't like audience coming at me from the side. I wanted to see them and address them. I needed to speak to them," she said. "I needed to say something for myself. Singing didn't make me nervous. It excited me.
"The choice was between spending my life sick with nerves or using my piano skills to support my voice."
She said that the opportunity to sing opera made the decision easier for her.
"There is a certain emotional journey that you can get in opera that I have not found in any other musical venue," DeShong said. "It's not that one is better than another but opera is the epitome of what you can do with the voice. No microphones just acoustic. Just you.
"While there is pressure in being so exposed, there is so much excitement and pride that you can take from each performance," she added. "I had to choose opera. I wouldn't want to do anything else!"
The singer went to Oberlin Conservatory for her undergraduate studies before heading to the Curtis Institute for her graduate work. She also studied at the Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Opera Center in Chicago thereafter.
Now the singer is based in Akron, Ohio but noted that there is a great deal of domestic instability associated with her line of work.
"It does take a certain personality and mindset. You can't be someone that suffers from loneliness," she said about the challenges of constantly being on the go. "You have to be okay with time by yourself. Partners and family cannot always travel with you. You will miss births, weddings, funerals. I missed my bro's wedding. I attended via IPad, via Skype. You will miss things. You have to be okay with that."
She noted that there are a plethora of positives to being an opera singer.
"A lot of what drew me to this career was travel. I wanted to see new place. I wanted to be on the go," said DeShong. "The lifestyle was part of the attraction. I love it. I don't suffer from it.
"Sometimes I get tired of what I put in my suitcase," she joked. "I'd like to go home and switch it up once in a while."
2014 and Beyond
After her performances of "Enchanted Island" at the Met, the singer will be heading to the concert stage to take on three great masterworks of the classical music repertoire.
In March she heads to Europe to perform Mahler's second symphony with the Webern Symphonie Orchestra under the guidance of Franz Welser-Möst. In April she will head home to Akron to take on Rossini's Stabat Mater before performing Mozart's "Requiem" for the first time in her career. She will be performing her first run of the work with the Cleveland Orchestra under Welser-Möst; she will also be performing the work with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in Carnegie Hall under the baton of Manfred Honeck.
"I love concert work. When I first started out I would have been happy to just do concert work," she stated about taking a break from the operatic stage. "I love being exposed like that. I love working on just the music and text and just commit to that. It is wonderful to breathe and let the rest go for a bit. It hones your skills and feels like a treat."
Regarding the Mozart piece, she noted, "I like the idea that it is an ensemble piece. All of your moments are with other singers. I have always valued choral training. It is nice to sing in a group and be sensitive and let others' lines inform your own... It is nice to take a step back and go toward a common musical goal with colleagues where it is less about an individual."
After her concert engagement, DeShong will reprise the role of Suzuki in San Francisco and Toronto; she will be singing Suzuki a total of 20 times, including 12 performances in Toronto.
"I am looking forward to it all. It is nice to do a role and do it in a bunch of productions and re-imagine her every single time. I am excited to sing it with Patricia Racette. She is fantastic."
In February 2015, she will make her role debut as Rosina in "The Barber of Seville" in Los Angeles.
What other roles does she plan to debut after Rossini? DeShong remained coy about what roles she will take on in the future.
"I always give a vague but truthful answer of saying that what you are doing now has to be the most important," she stated when asked about what roles she plans to add. "I know that it seems like a cop-out but it's not. If you plan too much ahead and project on your voice where it will go or where you wish it will go, you can get into trouble.
"I have always lived with the philosophy that you sing as young as possible as long as possible," she added. "Right now, I want to sing bel canto repertoire: Donizetti, Bellini, Rossini."
"It is within my voice to move in the direction of Verdi or Wagner, but that can wait. I will have something to maybe look forward to," she continued. "I like to keep my repertoire varied. Coloratura comes naturally to me. Why wouldn't I do it? Why not do it all?"