Alyson Cambridge returns home for Washington National Opera's 'Porgy and Bess'

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 19, 2010; C01

When she was a student at Sidwell Friends, Alyson Cambridge hid her singing lessons from her classmates. "I didn't think it was cool," she says.

Now, the 30-year-old is back in the D.C. area, living at her parents' house in Arlington County. But it's only for a few weeks; and this time, her singing is center stage. On Saturday, Cambridge will take on the role of Clara, for the second time, in the Washington National Opera's "Porgy and Bess."

There's no place like home -- even for the cast. Many of the singers are returning from the production's last iteration, in 2005. "It's like a family reunion," Cambridge says.

Cambridge's Washington roots have stood her in good stead. Not that she set out to be an opera singer at all. As a child, she sang and imitated everything she heard, including her mother's opera recordings. When a neighbor reacted by telling her, "You know, Alyson, that's not half bad. Maybe you should take some voice lessons," she ended up at the Levine School of Music for a lesson.

"The teacher said, 'You're way too young to be thinking of singing opera,' " Cambridge says. "And I said, 'I don't really want to sing opera. I like Madonna and Whitney Houston.' She said, 'Well, do your opera voice for me,' and I did, and she said, 'Only 12 years old? Really?' I said yes. And that's kind of how it all started."

What started was a trajectory that led Cambridge to Oberlin (where she had a double major in music and sociology and briefly considered law school); then to the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia; then to a victory in the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions that led her to abandon her master's degree in favor of a coveted spot in the Lindemann program, the Met's training ground for young artists.

Not many singers have such a smooth ride. Giving an interview to the college paper her senior year, she responded to a question about her goals by saying that she wanted to make her Met debut before she was 25. "They laughed at me," she says. "But sure enough, I did." A year before that debut, she had appeared in Washington for the first time as a professional, singing Adina in "L'Elisir d'Amore" with the Wolf Trap Opera.

Cambridge's repertory encompasses the bread-and-butter roles for a light lyric soprano who's feeling her way into slightly heavier roles as her voice matures: Mimi and Musetta in "La Bohème," Juliette in "Romeo et Juliette," Donna Elvira in "Don Giovanni." Her wish list includes Marguerite in "Faust" and Violetta in "La Traviata."

None of these are roles associated with any particular ethnicity, and Cambridge, with her mane of gold-brown hair and green eyes, could come from a number of ethnic backgrounds (in fact, her father is from Guyana, on the Caribbean coast of South America, and her mother, of Danish and Norwegian descent, is from Minnesota). This season, however, she's effectively turned the spotlight on African American roles, with "Porgy and Bess" in Washington and a just-released recording of a song cycle by William Bolcom, "From the Diary of Sally Hemings," about the slave who was thought to be the mistress of Thomas Jefferson.

"That is pure coincidence," Cambridge says of the juxtaposition of the two works. "I'm certainly proud of my Caribbean roots . . . my history and culture, but I wouldn't want that to define me."

Cambridge is simply pursuing opportunities. She's at a transitional period in a singer's life, moving from a trajectory where goals are clear and attainable to the murkier area of a sustainable career. What comes after the Met debut, particularly in a questionable economy? Asked about her goal for her next five years, she's a lot less explicit than when she was in college: "I am trying to stay focused, stay positive, and just continue to work as hard as I can." She adds, "I look forward to the day when I can sing a lead role at La Scala or Covent Garden." But she's a lot less firm about the deadline than she was when she was younger.

And for better or worse, some opportunities come up by virtue of Cambridge's appearance. The author of the texts Bolcom set in "From the Diary of Sally Hemings," Sandra Seaton, contacted Cambridge to ask whether she might be interested in looking at the music; Cambridge looked like what Seaton imagined Hemings might have looked like. The cycle, originally written for the mezzo-soprano Florence Quivar, had its world premiere at the Library of Congress, one of its co-commissioners, in 2001; Quivar has since retired, and it was revived for Bolcom's 75th birthday.

It's a thorny piece, its text elliptical and its music spare, though Bolcom (whose "A View From the Bridge" was done by WNO in 2007) does offer a few of his signature singing melodies. The composer calls it a monodrama; it follows the trajectory of Hemings's life. Cambridge, who usually sings music by composers long dead, has relished her first taste of working with a live one and hopes to continue touring with the piece.

"It has a great message," she says, and adds, "Here's a woman who was involved in an interracial relationship [when it] couldn't have been more taboo. And I, as Alyson Cambridge in 2010, am the product of an interracial marriage."

"She deepened a lot as she worked on it," Bolcom says, observing that Cambridge continued to work on the piece after the recording session. "It happens sometimes: You record something, and it develops further. I saw the performance they gave" when the recording was released this year, "and I was just knocked out." Cambridge found things to do, he said, that were "very telling, simple: very restrained things that gave you a sense of herself."

Then there's "Porgy and Bess," the one opera in the repertory that cannot permit colorblind casting and is seemingly fated to represent both a blessing and a curse to singers of color: a blessing because it offers plum, high-profile roles; a curse because once you've sung it, it can be hard to get people to cast you in anything else. Eric Owens, who sings Porgy in this production, observed in a conversation this year that if you "start doing [the role] on a regular basis, it can be something that's the only thing you're known for." Having done a wide range of roles at this point in his career, he decided, "I didn't have to worry about that sort of branding."

The same is true of Cambridge. Yet she observes a disquieting tendency in some auditions. "I will sing Mimi, and they will ask for Fiordiligi," from Mozart's "Cosi Fan Tutte," she says: standard roles from the standard repertory. "And then they will say, 'So, how about Bess.' And I think: That's nowhere on my rep list." In other words, some auditioners still want to typecast a singer of color in a traditionally black role.

The opera world appears to have regressed a few steps since the 1970s and 1980s, when trailblazers such as Leontyne Price, Grace Bumbry and Shirley Verrett made a good start at breaking down the color barrier. "I think there's more of a stigma attached to the role of Bess specifically than there is to Clara," Cambridge says.

But she's optimistic that in post-racial, Obama-led America, "Porgy and Bess" is "turning over a new leaf" in terms of its reception. Obama's election to the presidency was certainly a turning point in Cambridge's life. "He is actually just like me," she says. "He is not apologetic about his white side or his black side. Growing up, I felt like I was supposed to choose between one or another. I never had any use for that.

"I certainly don't want to be pigeonholed," she adds, speaking of "Porgy and Bess." "As much pride as I have in this piece of music, and this part of our history, I am a singer first."

Porgy and Bess

plays for 12 performances between Saturday and April 3 at the Kennedy Center Opera House. 202 295-2400, There are two casts, but Cambridge is scheduled to sing Clara at every performance.

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