Alyson Cambridge never expected to portray Carmen.

George Bizet’s iconic opera of the same name features a score written for a mezzo-soprano. Cambridge did not foresee staring in the lead as a possibility, as she sings soprano. However, the evolution of her voice, particularly over the last five years, and the opportunity with Opera Carolina has her starring in the lead this month (Jan. 19, 20 and 24 at Belk Theater).

“I really developed a much lower range, and I have always had a certain color and quality to my sound that resembles somewhat of a mezzo-soprano,” Cambridge said. “A few years ago, my teachers and coaches said, ‘you know, Alyson, you sort of already have a certain look that people think of when they think of Carmen, but your voice actually matches it quite well now. You should take a look at the role.’”

Cambridge did not intend for Opera Carolina conductor James Meena to give her one of the ultimate roles in the business when they met.

“When I met Maestro Meena a year and a half ago, I was actually singing for a different role,” Cambridge said. “He said, ‘what else are you working on?’ I said, ‘I actually sing some of Carmen’s arias.’ He said, ‘what, but you are a soprano?’ I sang it for him, and he said, ‘wow. I’m sold.’”

Cambridge’s performance will be her first as Carmen.

“Maestro Meena said, ‘how would you like to do your very first Carmen with us, here at Opera Carolina?’” Cambridge said. “This will be my debut in this role, and funnily enough, I’ve actually sung two of the other female parts in this opera before—I’ve sung Frasquita many times, and I’ve sung the role of Micaela many times. I know the opera well. I’m excited now to inhabit the role of Carmen, which is a lifelong career dream.”

“Carmen” takes place in 1830 Seville, and includes a recognizable score.

“It is one of the perfect operas in many ways,” Cambridge said. “You have the serious and dramatic elements in passion, love and betrayal, but there are some comedic elements as well. One of the greatest things about ‘Carmen’ is that the melodies are so recognizable. Whether you are a newcomer to opera, or you are someone who has been an opera lover your entire life, there is no way you are going to leave the theater without sort of singing along.”

It follows the story of a gypsy named Carmen, and her male counterparts—an officer named Don José, played by Dario di Vietri, and a bullfighter called Escamillo, portrayed by Alex Lawrence.

“You have Carmen, who is very much opera’s quintessential femme fatale,” Cambridge said.  “Her strength is in her beauty, and in her way to captivate people, and sadly, to be able to manipulate them. It is interesting to see the different relationships she has with the two main male characters, but you also see a very vulnerable side of her, because she is human. She is not just this stereotypical femme fatale. She has many complexities and layers to her. That is one of the things that I am particularly enjoying bringing to this role. I’m loving having fun with the character, and doing all of the dancing, and being sort of this seductress, but at the same time, finding her vulnerability, and her humanity, and how she feels about these two different men in her life, and the conflict that she deals with between the two of them.”

Cambridge’s first exposure to opera was at the Kennedy Center in her native Washington, D.C. Her first opera? Gaetano Donizetti’s “Anna Bolena.” Yet her decision to pursue performing as a professional came from exposure to the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City, where she saw Giuseppe Verdi’s “La Traviata” as a junior in college. She would go on to do three years in the Met’s young artist training program.

“It was part of training to go to all of the final dress rehearsals of all of the shows,” Cambridge said. “My goodness, I saw more opera in those three years—my appreciation for all of the different voice types, the orchestra, stage craft, costuming—it just grew exponentially. When I was in college [at Oberlin College], my exposure to opera was limited to the operas I was in there. I absolutely loved it, but seeing it on a professional, grand scale was incredible.”

Cambridge has branched out to other facets of singing, including the recording studio and Broadway stage.

“I had no intention of becoming an opera singer when I was a little girl,” Cambridge said. “I wanted to be a pop star. I used to imitate singers, and anything and everything that I heard of the radio, which included opera.”

A friend of a neighbor heard Cambridge, and encouraged her to study the craft at age 12, providing constant encouragement to continue training.

“My true fondness for opera came in my mid-late teens when I started attending opera, and listening to it more often,” she said.

By the time Cambridge hit college, where she earned a degrees in sociology and prelaw as well as voice performance, she was hooked. She made a deal with herself: If she performed at the Met by age 25, she would go all in. Cambridge made her debut there at the age of 24, and 15 years later, she still performs professionally.

“It was really my last year of college where I said, ‘OK, Alyson, you have to make a choice here. Are you going to give this opera thing a chance?’” Cambridge recalled. “I said, ‘hey, if I can make it to the Met by the time I am 25, I am going to stick with opera. That is going to be my career path.’ Coincidently, at the age of 24, I made my Met debut in ‘Carmen,’ singing the role of Frasquita.” 

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