Soprano Alyson Cambridge, who began her career here in Washington, DC and has gone on to perform on some of the major opera stages of the world including Washington National Opera. She is making her debut performance as Bess in Porgy and Bess at the Spoleto Festival USA and talks here about the role and the issues of race and casting.
Susan Galbraith: What about this production of Porgy and Bess informed playing the role of Bess for you?
Alyson Cambridge: I have a long history with this show. “Summertime” is the first aria I ever sang. It was the first thing my first teacher at Levine School of Music assigned me. Then I sang “My Man’s Gone Now” and “Summertime” on my senior recital at Sidwell (Sidwell Friends School.) Senior Projects, and my thing was I was going to sing a vocal recital and I sang that. Actually, I remember President Clinton was there at that performance, and I was friends with Chelsea at the time, and he said “Oh, I remember when I’ve been down to South Carolina, and the Gullah…” And I said “Wow!”
And then my debut at the Kennedy Center was the 2005 production Porgy and Bess directed by Francesca Zambello. I performed in it with Eric Green and it was the debut for both of us. He was Jake and I was Clara. And we sang the roles in various cities throughout the production, so we called ourselves and played “Hubby” and “Wifey.”
I always wanted to take on the role of Bess, but it is a massive role in so many ways, dramatically and vocally. And I started off quite young in this business, in my early twenties as a lighter lyric soprano. My manager and my vocal teacher wanted me to wait until I was ready vocally and as an artist to take on this role. Bess is incredibly complex and multi-layered. The role requires a lot of acting and vocal nuance.
I’ve taken on a lot of other dramatic roles in my career and it is the ability for finding that balance between going, even crossing that line and then coming back right before it so that you are always in control vocally and emotionally but you are always close to that edge. That’s what it takes to deliver a real and honest performance. So those were the factors in my waiting to take on this role.
Leonore Rosenberg was responsible for casting this show, and I worked with her for many years at the Metropolitan Opera, and she knows my voice. She called me into her office and said, “Bess at Spoleto. I think you might be ready to take it on.” And I said, “Yeah, I think we’re there.” And of course I sang for her and David. It’s so great for it to all come to this moment. I had been looking forward to it last summer because it was originally supposed to be done then. But I am glad it is this summer.
SG: Last summer it would have been so hard and overshadowed, wouldn’t it by events in Charleston –?
AC: Yes, what happened at Emanuel Church. And here we are a year later almost to the day. It’s almost surreal to be part of this production right now. And Jonathan’s visual reimagining of how this story could be told, I think is so perfect for right now.
SG: How did Jonathan Green, the visual designer for the production, work with the cast?
AC: He came into rehearsal about two weeks ago. It was just before we all moved into the theater. I had met him and we had chatted, but he hadn’t addressed the cast as a whole. He gave a twenty-minute, most eloquent recounting of Charleston’s history – rice, the slave trade, class – and put it all together for all of this. And I thought, so this is the Porgy we are going to be doing. And the cast, we just sat there – stunned! You understand, most of the cast has done other productions, it’s not that we are newcomers to this show. But the way he explained it to us was incredible!
SG: Is there one thing that surprised you the most in terms of doing your role? What are you going to do differently now with Bess because of being here in Charleston
AC: Hmmm, I don’t know… I can only speak in general of how I am taking on any role. I want to give an honest emotional portrayal of the character. I have seen productions where Bess is totally unsympathetic. She is portrayed two-dimensionally as a strumpet and a drug addict. And my response was that she was pulling one over on Porgy, that she was just using him, that she never loves him. And it’s a tough story to follow because there are a lot of moving parts and characters. So I just wanted to find the core of this woman. I don’t think anyone is born evil or manipulative. These things come out of a person’s circumstances and what they been subject to in their own lives.
I wanted to explore all of that stuff so that she is seen as a real person. Does she go into Porgy’s house, knowingly to use him? Sure, because that is what she has done to survive. Bess has survived off of her looks and her way with men, and it has given her a certain lifestyle. She also is addicted to drugs, so how does she support her habit? Well, that’s with certain guys. Then there is Porgy who just likes her for who she is, despite all her shortcomings and despite how the rest of the community shuns her as an outsider. So I think she sees this and appreciates this in Porgy and I believe a real love does develop.
SG: As you say, the character has a lot of baggage and complications. The show also carries a lot of baggage. Eric Greene talked about that today. Did you feel any kind of reluctance to do this show, with the politics of race and perhaps the concern that doing the show would pigeonhole you?
AC: Yes. Yes. As I said, I started in this business very young, and, to be perfectly honest, when it was wasn’t appropriate for me to do this role vocally, I was offered it. “You’re an attractive African-American soprano. So, you should sing Bess.” Uh-uh, that’s not how it goes. And with the advisement of my management and other trusted people in this business, I was cautioned to sing the role of Clara “selectively.” Clara doesn’t carry with it the same stigma that singing Bess does. And so I did that. I sang the role, a handful of “Claras,” in a select number of houses. You get to make your company debuts and you get a little mention in the paper, but you are not going to be pigeonholed playing Bess.
Then I was again offered the role of Bess that I turned down… for years. It’s unfortunate and people don’t realize it but if a performer has a certain skin color, whether people realize it or not when casting they see them immediately as suited to “that kind of role.” And unfortunately, I have seen that happen to a number of my colleagues. They may be excellent singers, but once they start singing Bess, more than once every year or couple of years, they become “Porgy singers.” When in fact they may be a wonderful Mimi in La Boheme. Or a man might be a great Don Giovanni in Don Giovanni. Yet once they’re attached to this project that is how they are seen and categorized. I had to be aware of all of this.
SG: Do you mean you have established yourself and now you can —
AC: Exactly. I just did Showboat at Dallas Opera —
SG: And I saw you play Julie in Washington in Washington National Opera’s Showboat —
AC: And that’s another role I have always been drawn to because I can relate to her in so many ways. She’s a biracial figure. She passes as White then she’s discovered to be of mixed race. We had a wonderful symposium at a university down in Dallas on Race and Casting. And people were talking about Hamilton on Broadway and why it’s been such a great success, and one of the things they talked about is its “color conscious” casting. We’d like to see more of that in the opera world. Whose shoulders does that responsibility fall on? Is it the casting director? The company administrator? The Board? The artists themselves – I think we have a place in it too – I think it is our job to get out in the community and show people, “We do opera too.” And we can all come together and help break down the barriers and stereotypes and help diversify not only what is on stage but in the audience.
SG: I’m so aware of this continued lack of diversity in the audience in Washington and here in Charleston. Where are the African-Americans coming to hear classical music at Dock Street? Where are the people of color coming to opera at the Kennedy Center? Very few.
AC: Yet Francesca Zambello of WNO, a company I’ve sung with for years, is very “color conscious” in casting and working hard to change this, as well as diversifying the audience.
SG: Undeniably true. Now tell me in working with two directors, “Cesca” and David Herskovits [Spoleto Festival USA]. How did these directors approach the challenges? What did they give you as a starting place?
Alyson: Totally different styles of directing. Now, I’ve worked with Cesca on and off for 11 years, and her style of directing is very direct. And in terms of dealing with charged subject matters, it’s pretty much addressed Day One. With Cesca we are not going to back away from the issues that come up in a production. She hits them straight on. She’ll say, “I don’t want us to be shy about it.” For instance, in Showboat the “N” word is used, and she said, “We are going to use the “N” word. It is going to stay in the dialogue. It is going to be part of the show.”
Now, I had never worked with David before, and I came in four days after everyone else because I came from another show. So I don’t know how he was with the cast on Day One, but when I entered, he was more fluid “go with the flow.” He also doesn’t have as much of a history with this piece as some of the cast members do. So I think he was very trusting as a director to let us follow our natural instincts – like Lester who has been singing various roles in this work for 22 years. I think David trusted us to follow some of our natural instincts with this piece. I quite enjoyed this process. Every director has his or her own style.
I’ve been with other directors who will say, “On this note I want you to cross here and on this downbeat you turn there,” and the staging is very micromanaged. David is more general in what he wants to happen. “I want this to take place in this space and around this time I want you to go there and do that.” But then it is left up to us to fill in the blanks. And you know, he was part of the casting with Leonore, so I think it is not accident that he chose people who do know the show very well and have strong opinions on their character development..
SG: Interesting. Now recently there was the Porgy and Bess that went to Broadway. I saw it at ART (American Repertory Theatre) pre-Broadway in Boston. And I am always fascinated about the difference between how much you prepare beforehand as an opera singer and how your come into a theatre production, where so much is developed in rehearsal. You’ve done both opera and musical theater. Can you speak to this?
AC: I come into a rehearsal process having prepared as much as I can which means hours and hours of vocal musical coaching has already been done so that the technical aspects are already worked out. So when I get on stage in rehearsal, that part of it is on autopilot. That has been worked out in the studio. I have also done the research. I think about my character. But honestly until you get into those staging rehearsals and get a feel for what the directors vision is you can’t really put all the pieces together. And it also depends on whom you are working with. You have to find that natural chemistry.
The relationship between Bess and Crown is so volatile. It’s very physical between Eric and me. And because we are so comfortable with each other and have known each other for such a long time, there was an automatic trust. And I think David was even a little “Oh!” when we staged that scene, because Eric and I went from 0 to a 9 within an hour of staging in terms of the intensity. And he can grab me and throw me around because he knows how to handle me. It was there. David just responded, “Okay, whoa guys, let’s go with that.” And same with Lester, we’ve known each other for a long time and we figure out things together, find things easily. So I would say prepare as much as you can then be there and go with the flow.
In theater, it’s not required to come knowing your part and showing up being off book. The first time I saw that in Showboat in Chicago when we premiered it in 2012, which had half opera people and half musical theatre, and we are all there off book and ready to go, and the musical theatre people are still highlighting. And we’re going, “Whaaaat?”
SG: You’ve had an amazing career, Alyson. And in Washington, I believe I even gave you your first job, in an original chamber-opera work Chinese Village.
AC: It was at the Hand Chapel produced by In Series and Alliance for New Music-Theatre! I remember I ran across the floor and then I fell in one of the performances. And this is the time I was hiding my opera training from my classmates. Only my closest friends at Sidwell. It was my “other thing.” Everyone thought, “Oh Alison, she plays soccer.”
SG: Did you know then that you wanted to be an opera singer?
AC: No. I always had one foot here and one over there. And I liked it that way. I loved my voice lessons. And I loved being in that show. And yes, yours was my first professional job. It was a big deal, and I remember talking about it with my voice teacher. There was going to be an audience and it had a real venue and not just a recital at the Levine School. Then I went to Tanglewood and musical summer camps. But at school I had my friends, and sports, and I was academically successful. And so everywhere I applied for college it was for a double degree – either Pre-Law or Psychology and Voice. I looked at all the great double degree programs: Columbia and Juilliard, Eastman and University of Rochester, Northwestern, Tufts and New England Conservatory. I ended up going to Oberlin because it was the one place that seemed to seriously encourage a double degree.
Everywhere else suggested that at some point you would have to choose. And I didn’t want to do that. And I graduated from Oberlin with honors with a double degree Sociology and Pre-Law and Voice. I did all the operas at Oberlin. But my very last year at Oberlin, I was applying to graduate school. But I also applied to Juilliard and Curtis. And I thought if I get into one of those two, I am going to give myself 5 years. And a year later, I started Curtis in the Fall, in the spring I won the MET auditions, and next Fall I was there.
SG: I want to hear about your experience with new composers and compositions. What would you like to see being written in new music-theatre?
AC: Adam Schoenberg, a friend and also an Oberlin grad, one of the hottest composers on the scene, just wrote a piece for me that I premiered at the Terrace Theatre in Washington. The whole evening was called “In Her Voice,” and I performed two new pieces written for me. And the first part of the program was Bolcum’s “From the Diary of Sally Hemings.” I loved singing all the pieces on the program. But Adam’s work is something quite special, very atmospheric, even cinematic. There is almost a pop element to it yet he wrote for my operatic voice. It highlighted the best parts of my voice. The minute I heard it – he sent me a mini-file –and I thought “This is good, really good stuff.” His wife is his writing partner and was the librettist. It told a story and is called “Tres Mujeres” and it’s about three generations of Mexican immigrant women. It is so beautiful. And I know he is working to get a commission to orchestrate the whole thing.
I grew up listening to all kinds of music not just opera. My mother was into classical music, and I played the piano. I loved pop and R&B and grunge and rap. And my father listened to soca and reggae and jazz. So many different musical influences. I like things that allow me to stretch and I love to sing music that shows my other sides and musical tastes.
SG: Well, we will be watching for you to return to Washington for your cross-over work as well as new roles in opera. And best of experiences with this Porgy and Bess.