The excellent Opera Carolina is currently presenting a run of Carmen, and Opera Lively briefly interviewed the four main singers. Consult www.operacarolina.org for tickets and more information.
Questions by Luiz Gazzola. Copyright Opera Lively. Reproduction authorized as long as the source is mentioned and a link to this article is given. Pictures downloaded from the Opera Carolina website, photo credits unknown to us, fair promotional use.
Here are the artists’ answers to our questions:
Alex Lawrence in the role of Escamillo
OL – Of course, any time we talk of Escamillo, it’s the Toreador song that comes to mind. I’ve been told by singers that this is a very tricky aria, and one of the most difficult ones in the baritone repertory, not to forget that it must be a bit nerve-wrecking to come in with the voice not fully warmed-up, to perform to a full audience, one of the most famous musical stretches in the history of opera, under the weight of all the predecessors. Please tell us about the challenges involved in this exercise, and how you go about it.
AL – The Toreador Aria is indeed challenging for a number of reasons, a couple of which you very perceptively mentioned here. Of course, there are many different types of voices that take on this role in the baritone/bass-baritone/bass fachs (voice categories). I’m a lyric baritone, and while many basses find this aria and role challenging due to the high tessitura, my challenge is the lower end of it, and keeping the voice even from bottom to top by not pushing.
The orchestra is big, boisterous and, like you said, you enter ‘full-throttle’ and as such must be warmed up vocally and physically beforehand. When singing a role that opens ‘gently’ with some recitative or an ensemble, I might not feel the need to warm up as much as I do beforehand as I do for Escamillo. So I’ll do some physical exercises in the dressing room, and probably workout in my hotel before each performance so that the muscles are elastic and engaged, and the lungs and diaphragm are as active as possible.
As for the ‘weight of predecessors,’ what I can say is that the great interpreters of this role inspire me to have fun with it, to sing with gusto, to not take the technical concerns too seriously. Although Jose van Dam comes to mind when I think of ideal technical and stylistic interpretations, I go more in with the mindset of the late great Hvorostovsky at the BBC proms. He has the audience in the palm of his hand, and eats it up.
This is a crowd pleaser and the audience wants charisma and to see you enjoy it as much as they do. A healthy technical approach is always important, but so too is a healthy sense of humor, some zest and a shared enjoyment with the audience as you deliver one of the great moments in all of opera.
OL – In the summer of 2018, Opera Lively spent a few days in Zurich, interviewing the Intendant (General Director) of Opernhaus Zürich, Andreas Homoki, interviewing singers, and reviewing their shows, including an excellent Carmen. We were very impressed with the excellence of that opera company. You were a member of the Opernhaus Zürich ensemble. You are also a graduate of the prestigious Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia. We’d be curious to learn your take on being part of the ensemble system of a top-level German-speaking company, and how you compare this training with how an American organization teaches a singer.
AL – Carmen (as the gypsy leader Dancairo, not Escamillo) was one of my very first operas in Zurich, and perhaps you saw the same production! [Editor’s note: indeed] There I am below on set with Andreas Homoki (left) and cast.
I left the ensemble there in 2016 after four seasons with the company. To be honest, I never had any intentions to take my training and development overseas when I was finishing up my final year at AVA in 2011. I was offered a studio contract with the Theater in Basel (an hour from Zurich) from a last-minute audition that I took in NYC, and then received a contract to join the Zurich studio the following year and, subsequently, the full-time ensemble.
As many young artists know, the period between when we graduate from our masters programs, diploma programs, or young artist programs and begin to work as a freelance artist can be precarious. For a few, the transition happens relatively easily, but most need more time to learn and develop in a safe environment. Often times, the German-speaking Fest (fixed contract) system in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland provides the best means for a young singer to really learn how to sing, discover their voices and grow as artists. Other times, it can be overwhelming if the singer is not technically or emotionally prepared.
Personally, I was somewhere in between. While I may have benefited from remaining in NY and studying with my core teacher for a few more years, I gained the riches of being exposed to the German theater system, learned another language, and experienced working alongside the world’s preeminent artists in a house of the highest musical caliber.
So, from my standpoint, going to Europe, if the option is available to you, can be a wonderful thing, but it is important to feel technically grounded and secure enough that you will be able to handle the jump to the somewhat less nurturing environment.
Sadly, the Zeitgeist is such that our business is often unable to support programs and processes that truly do nurture young voices in the way that they need. So I simply recommend being smart, finding your mentor you trust and sticking to your intuition. Take opportunities as they come but find those who genuinely believe in you to help you along the way. They are rare, but extremely vital. And you’ll need them.
OL – Your artistic biography includes roles in a very diverse and interesting repertory, including De Falla, Bernstein, Britten, Debussy, Martinu, Dvorak, as well as the more conventional Verdi, Mozart, Puccini, and Bizet roles. Would you please address the challenges of going from one style to another, and tell us about your preferences in terms of where your voice is most comfortable?
AL – My resume reflects roles both small and large that I was given as part of the fest system in Zurich and, eventually, was offered in regional companies throughout the US & Canada. With a consistent and stable technique, no matter what one sings, there should be minimal shifts when changing from one style to another. That is to say, I would not sing De Falla or Bernstein any differently, technically, then I would Dvorak or Verdi, because it can destabilize a singer’s sense of their voice.
Naturally, there are challenges, especially when certain repertoire is less lyrical than others, to keep the voice in its optimal production. When singing music that is very wordy and choppy, it’s important to steadily rest on the breath and focus more intensely on this.
Lyrical music is best suited to a classically trained instrument – and I am likely not diverging from the majority opinion in saying I prefer lyrical roles – but every role can be approached with a lyrical mindset. And should be.
My voice feels most comfortable in the lyrical Italian and French repertoire, but also has facility with English opera such as Britten, and German art song.
OL – How are you as a person, in terms of personality, take on life, hobbies, and extra-musical interests?
AL – My take on life is relatively simple: Live mindfully of the world, environment and people around you, treat others as you wish others would treat you, don’t take things personally (especially important for artists), continuously strive to grow and learn from your mistakes, and be brutally honest with yourself and those you care about.
I’m an avid meditator, tennis fan, and Shaun T insanity enthusiast. I also love to write and am a professionally trained marketing copywriter and content strategist, with a Masters degree in Integrated Marketing Communications. I’m a proud uncle of an adorable niece and nephew, and grateful son of two very supportive parents who live outside of Boston, MA.
Dario di Vetri in the role of Don José
OL – Don José is is an ambiguous, conflicted character; in the source material he is even darker, having killed before. Please tell us about the psychology of your character.
DDV – My Don Josè is a sweet, sensitive and strong character; unfortunately the sensuality of Carmen brings him to lose his head, so he leaves the Military service, goes to jail for Carmen, until he gets to kill her. Sincerely he follows Carmen because he is dominated by her and does not manage to do without her but he is aware of being wrong and knows he should behave differently.
OL – Some of the most iconic tenor arias of the repertory belong to Don José. Please tell us about the vocal challenges involved in singing this role.
DDV – I have interpreted this role many times, but in this highly anticipated aria “La Fleur” I always add something more in my intentions.
The difficulty of this role is that the writing of Bizet in the first two acts is purely lyrical and requires nuances and half voices while in the third and fourth act, it needs a more dramatic voice and the character becomes more heroic and violent; we must know how to reconcile the two aspects.
OL – You’ve been having an illustrious career in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, including, having sung several times in places like China, Dubai, and Egypt. We’d be curious to know about the popularity and reception of Western opera in those countries. Would you please share with us some of the experiences you had there?
DDV – I can say that in Eastern Europe the knowledge of music and opera is at a very high level and they greatly appreciate important voices, while countries like the Middle East or China are now approaching the Opera. They appreciate it and try to do it at a good level. I must say that in these countries I am very appreciated by the public and I feel very comfortable.
OL – You had the opportunity to study with Pavarotti. What are your memories of the larger-than-life Luciano?
DDV – Surely what Pavarotti gave to the world of Opera is under the eyes of everybody; throughout him the world of the Opera has approached young people. I had the privilege of studying with him at the age of 16 years old; he recognized my talent, sponsored me and encouraged me to move forward. The moments of study with him are etched on my mind and accompany my career.
Christina Pier in the role of Micaëla
OL – The roles of Micaëla and Escamillo are smaller than those of Carmen and Don José, but I remember an Opera Lively review of Carmen by one of the North Carolina companies, that we named “The Micaëla Show”, given how well that particular singer portrayed the role. Please tell us about your personal recipe for a great Micaëla, in terms of singing and acting.
CP – Ha! What soprano wouldn’t love that?
In all seriousness, much of the operatic repertoire is written with sopranos as the leading ladies. So, it is a bit unusual to play more of a supporting role.
I think there is a part of Micaëla in all of us. She is an honest, good person with true intentions. Her personal fortitude and courage is driven by her faith and her genuine care for Don José. This character was actually added to the story by Bizet and his librettists, and offers a beautiful contrast to the story. All of the action is integrated so brilliantly into the music! I try to listen to what Bizet has written in the orchestra, and allow that to inform each phrase and character choice.
OL – With rehearsals underway, how is this production coming along? What can the Charlotte public expect from this show, in terms of its strengths?
CP – This is going to be a fantastic show! There is something for everyone in this opera. The music is beautiful and recognizable, and the story is compelling. This production is full of action, dance, passion, and also some very tender, sweet moments. The cast is world-class, and I have to give a shout out to our orchestra and chorus! This is a huge ensemble piece, and their talents and energy really are the backbone of this show.
OL – You had an opportunity to perform a Wagner role, Senta in The Flying Dutchman with Virginia Opera, as well as a couple of 20th century roles by Poulenc and Barber. How do you compare the challenges of those roles, with those of the more standard repertory that you also sing, like Mozart, Gounod, and Bizet roles?
CP – I have! Coming back to Micaëla after over 10 years has been a great joy. I love her youthfulness and spirit. After playing some rather dark and troubled characters, it is fun to get to smile and be playful in (spoiler alert) at least Act I. This role has been a very welcome change vocally, as well.
The more demanding roles require a lot of vocal stamina. It can be tricky to find the right pacing throughout the show and rehearsal process. This role is just as gratifying, but not as demanding. It helps that rehearsals here have been very well organized and efficient.
OL – Please tell us a bit about the path you have followed to become an opera singer, growing up.
CP – I actually grew up playing the violin. I always loved to sing, but just for fun. As I got older, I traded violin lessons for voice lessons, and began to sing in festivals, music camps, and competitions. I caught the bug, and there was no turning back. I attended Indiana University for both my undergraduate and graduate degrees. In my final year of study, I won some competitions including the Grand Finals of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Awards. That led to management, and launched my career. Ironically, our Carmen, Alyson Cambridge was also one of the winners that year. It has been especially fun to get to reunite with her here on our stage.
It is a unique and wonderful thing to get to work at home. After starting my career and traveling quite a bit, I landed in Charlotte, where I met my husband, and have developed deep roots. In addition to performing, I am also on the faculties at UNC Charlotte and Queens University. Sharing this experience with so many of my friends, colleagues, and students that are on stage and in the pit has been very meaningful.
Alyson Cambridge in the title role of Carmen
OL – You had very interesting answers in our full-length in-person interview in December of 2014, in Washington DC when you portrayed Musetta. Four years latter, we are curious to know what other artistic accomplishments you have achieved in this interval. Would you please detail the most notable events in your career, in the last four years? For one thing, I know you’ve released more CDs.
AC – I have, indeed, had a very busy and exciting past four years! I released two new albums – “Until Now” in 2016, which is a jazz/crossover album of some of my favorite standards and other musical theater and pop hits, and “Sisters In Song” in 2018, which is a classical duets album with fellow soprano, Nicole Cabell and the Lake Forest Symphony, and is a compilation of operatic duets, classical and American songs, and African-American spirituals.
I debuted several new roles, Carmen most recently, also Madama Buttefly and Hanna Glawari in The Merry Widow. I also made my Broadway debut in spring winter/Spring 2018 in a new show called ROCKTOPIA, which fuses opera and classical music with rock in a very cool and unprecedented way.
I also toured with the show in the Fall. I returned to Carnegie Hall for a solo concert in the Fall 2018 as well. I was also featured in the NY Times for my “Sunday Routine” which highlighted my exercise and practice routines, with a bit of my social life and penchant for fashion. I also continue to model, and I am a regular on the Today Show, particularly for beauty and wellness brands. I am the face and body of the Sculpsure ad campaign which can be seen throughout the US.
OL – In your interview, we talked about powerful women; you said you strive to be one. Now you are portraying Carmen again, who fits the bill. Please tell us about the psychological arc of your character.
AC – Carmen is a tricky and complex character to play. I really enjoy the acting challenge that it provides. She is cunning, sassy, sexy, strong, ruthless and manipulative, but also vulnerable and does have a softer side to her. It is my job in portraying her to show all those sides and elements at different points.
OL – One of the most interesting aspects in Carmen is the fact that she confronts Don José in the end, probably fully knowing that it might result in disaster and in getting her killed. Some would say it’s a self-destructing, suicidal wish; others would say it’s part of her “be free at all costs” life philosophy. What’s your take on that scene?
AC – I think the most interesting aspect of her arc, and this is a choice, is whether or not she is completely accepting of her fate and of death. I think it could be argued both ways. In this production, she is defiant and completely unwilling to falter or show fear to the very end.
OL – Please tell us about the vocal challenges of the role. What is needed to sing Carmen well?
AC – I have to say that, for me, as a soprano with a healthy middle and low range, but easy access always to my top, this role is not necessarily a vocal “challenge” for me. Yes, I use chest voice much more in this role than I do in my soprano repertoire, but I enjoy it. The role just feels very vocally comfortable for me in every way.
I think the greatest challenge in a role like this, that is so heavily focused on the acting, the character arc, the physicality, the dancing, etc., is about coloring the words and finding the nuance within each scene, and making vocal choices that give more life and understanding to the character.
It is about SO much more than delivering a vocally sound and secure performance. It really does have to be all-encompassing. No one wants to hear a well-sung Carmen that lacks the other crucial elements that make her the iconic operatic figure with whom we are all so intrigued. I love that challenge, and that has been my favorite part about singing Carmen.
Our thanks to all four artists for the very interesting answers! Dear readers, don’t miss this show, which still has one last performance on January 24th (buy tickets by clicking [here]).