Elizabeth DeShong And The Art, Lure Of Bel Canto Opera

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Securing her niche: Mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong is performing as Bellini’s Adalgisa, Mozart’s Sesto and Handel’s Rinaldo this season. (Kristine Hoebermann)
By Roy C. Dicks

INTERVIEW – In the competitive world of opera, finding a special niche for a singer’s talents can galvanize a career. Although American mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong has proven her abilities during the past decade in a range of periods and styles, from Puccini’s Suzuki and Humperdinck’s Hänsel to Britten’s Hermia, it’s in the bel canto repertoire that she has steadily risen to international renown, garnering rave notices in San Francisco and London (Orsini in Lucrezia Borgia), Glyndebourne and Vienna (Angelina in La Cenerentola), and Toronto (Calbo in Maometto II).

DeShong had world-wide success as Arsace in Rossini’s Semiramide earlier this year via the Metropolitan Opera’s HD transmission to 70 countries. Her easy command of the role’s punishing requirements and her rich, velvety voice drew high praise. The mezzo-soprano’s confident performance was all the more impressive because she had sung the part only once before, in a 2016 Opéra National de Bordeaux concert version with soprano Leah Crocetto in the title role.

Now she’ll again have Crocetto as a colleague, this time in North Carolina Opera’s concert staging of Bellini’s Norma on Oct. 21 at Raleigh’s Meymandi Concert Hall. The cast includes tenor Chad Shelton and bass-baritone Ao Li with conductor Antony Walker. Although this will be Crocetto’s first portrayal of the title role, DeShong’s performance as Adalgisa will be her second, following last year’s Lyric Opera of Chicago production. Later in the season she is scheduled to sing Sesto in Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito with the Los Angeles Opera, and the title role in Handel’s Rinaldo at Glyndebourne.

In a recent phone interview from Hershey, Pa., where DeShong was visiting her parents, she spoke about exploring Adalgisa further in Raleigh, the roles she hopes to perform soon, her use of social media – she updates her photo blog A Singer’s Suitcase daily – and her advice to aspiring opera singers. Her quick laughter and engaging warmth complemented her thoughtfully considered responses. Here are edited excerpts from that conversation:

Q: What are the elements in your characterization of Adalgisa?

A: I approach her by just believing in her core qualities. It’s not the action that defines her; it’s her thought processes and how she reacts to the situations. At the expense of her own happiness, she just wants to do the right thing, the most good for the most people. Finding that goodness and humanity makes her a more solid character.

DeShong photographed herself as Suzuki in ‘Madama Butterfly’ at
the Metropolitan Opera in 2014. (Elizabeth DeShong)

Q: How much of the character is in Bellini’s music?

A: The basics are there, but you have to find ways to color the piece, where you add and where you pull back. It’s also how you relate to your Norma, what she is willing to give you and how you both cultivate that relationship.

Q: What will you be focusing on as you work, in the limited rehearsal time, with Leah Crocetto in her first performance of the role?

A: Leah and I have already sung together in Semiramide and Maometto II, so we have a history of doing bel canto and navigating tricky duets. We’re very comfortable working together, and Leah is a very musical singer. We’ll be focused on making the duets as solid and full of intention as possible.

Q: Although you’ve received many accolades for your bel canto roles, you sing a wide range of music. What are you programming for your Sept. 28 appearance on the Vocal Arts DC series?

A: That will actually be my first professional recital. I’ve been so busy with operatic and concert repertoire that I haven’t had the time until now to devote to recital repertoire. I’ve stepped outside of what people may be expecting because I’ve chosen an all 20th-century program. I’m doing Britten’s A Charm of Lullabies, Honegger’s Trois Fragments, and pieces by Hahn, Schoenberg, and Pizzetti. They all have different types of drama but are unified by human stories I think people can relate to.

Q: What about operatic roles you would like to sing?

A: I’m always a little bit slow to answer that question because I don’t want to project anything onto my voice. However, I would like to sing Amneris at some point. I’ve started looking at Santuzza, which may be in the near future, and definitely Erda.

DeShong sang with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in the premiere
of Max Raimi’s ‘Three Lisel Mueller Settings.’ (Todd Rosenberg)

Q: How about works and roles created with you in mind?

A: Earlier this year I worked with Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony on the world premiere of Max Raimi’s Three Lisel Mueller Settings, which was tremendously exciting. Operatically, I have a few ideas about some possible new works. One would be an “after Butterfly” story about what happened to Suzuki. Did she have any interaction with Pinkerton, and where did her life go from there? With my history in the role and how deeply I feel I understand her now, it would be a logical step for me.

Q: How do you feel about singers’ performances being so instantly and pervasively available online, often in unofficial postings?

A: I think it’s a mixed bag. I like that people can find singers they might not know about. But before the online era, there was a security that if you had an off night, which every singer does, you were safe. It didn’t instantly hit 17 blogs and YouTube. Now every night is a first night.

Q: What about the comments posted on performances?

A: Now everyone is a critic, and the public doesn’t always differentiate who is trained and has a background to give criticism in a healthy, constructive way. So many artists now live in fear of criticism that’s just meant to be clickbait to get people’s attention.

As Hermia in ‘The Enchanted Island’ at the Met (Elizabeth DeShong)

Q: On the other hand, you seem to have fully embraced social media as an aspect of your career.

A: I enjoy social media, but I may do it slightly differently than some other artists. I try to show my full life, not just my artist’s life. I think it’s important for fans as well as developing artists to see that you have to be a well-rounded human to give your best on stage. You have to have something from outside the opera and classical music world to make you complete.

Q: What advice do you give young singers training for a career?

A: I tell them it’s wonderful if they are talented and feel they have something to say on stage. But they need to assess the type of person they are and make sure they’ll really be happy doing the job. Just because you can do it doesn’t mean you should. It’s hard when they have that passion to also try being logical and factual.

Q: What’s the worst thing about being an opera singer?

A: The drawbacks are that you end up missing a lot of things in your personal life that people cherish, such as births, weddings, funerals, and big life events, because you are often thousands of miles away. If you have a supportive partner, that helps. But if you are a person who suffers from loneliness, it can be very difficult.

Q: And the best thing?

A: One of the best is travel. You get to experience so many wonderful cultures, giving you the sense you’ve lived a number of lives. You meet different types of people and really broaden your mind to what the world is. You learn that we are all one human kind and live as a global community.

Roy C. Dicks was a music and theater critic for the daily Raleigh (NC) News & Observer from 1997 to 2018. He continues to write for Classical Voice of North Carolina and American Record Guide.