Elizabeth Bishop has sung Dido in Berlioz’s “Les Troyens” at the Metropolitan Opera, has been featured in a national PBS broadcast of Conrad Susa’s “The Dangerous Liaisons,” and, most recently, turned the often-shrewish role of Fricka into a compelling human being in the Washington National Opera’s “Ring.”
It’s a résumé many singers can only dream of. Now, she’s returning to the Washington National Opera in its upcoming “The Marriage of Figaro,” which opens Thursday. She is not, however, singing a leading role, but the comic role of Marcellina, often seen as a vehicle for singers of a certain age.
Part of the reason is that, as the opera world remodels itself along the lines of mainstream entertainment, singers in their prime — Bishop is in her 40s — now face the challenges that Hollywood actresses of the same age have long known: You start getting offers for the old-lady parts.
“I’m in that weird spot,” Bishop says, “where my voice still sounds young, but according to the business now, I’m aged.”
But there’s another part of the reason. Bishop, a mezzo-soprano, has sung leading roles around the world, including Eboli in “Don Carlo” and the title role in Poul Ruders’s opera “The Handmaid’s Tale” at the Minnesota Opera. She’s gained national attention for singing two different roles at the Met in a single day in 2013 (Poulenc’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites” in the afternoon, Fricka in Wagner’s “Das Rheingold” in the evening). And she’s received glowing reviews: “a vocally lustrous and moving Mother Marie,” Anthony Tommasini wrote in the New York Times; “a deep, warm, hearty voice, abundant in size and flexible of expression,” Tim Page said in The Washington Post. But somehow, all of her success has never been quite enough to keep her solidly in the spotlight.
What is operatic success? We tend to think of it as an all-or-nothing proposition: Either you’re Anna Netrebko or you’re a wannabe. But Bishop is the epitome of what success actually looks like: someone who has had a varied and fulfilling career singing a wide range of major roles in major houses, without hitting the top echelon of stardom.
“My career is not sexy,” she said last week, sitting in a bare classroom-like space at WNO’s rehearsal studios in Takoma Park. “I have made a decent career out of being the world’s best fourth choice. They can’t get the star, they can’t get the old star, they can’t get the new girl who is coming up: Let’s call Betsy. She can do anything.”
“It’s just like a little old mule,” she added, laughing. “You can’t kill it with a stick. I just keep plodding along. You know I could stand to have my name higher on the list a few times. But then I realized, that’s success. Everybody knows they can trust you. They respect the product, and they can trust you.”
“By many standards, she has had a great career,” Francesca Zambello, the artistic director of the Washington National Opera, said in an email exchange, “because she has always, always been working, for years. She has also managed to have a committed and meaningful family life with her husband, Ken, and their daughter.”
Bishop has retained the Southern twang and colorful expressions of her South Carolina background, but she is a longtime Washington-area resident. She and her husband, the coach Ken Weiss, who met when they were both participants in the prestigious Merola program at the San Francisco Opera, moved to Reston, Va., almost at random. By happy chance, Weiss was almost immediately contacted by the Washington National Opera, where he has been working ever since. (He is principal coach of the Domingo-Cafritz young artist program.)
Bishop didn’t start out as a singer; she majored in political science at Furman University. But once she caught the singing bug and arrived at The Juilliard School, she developed a 10-year plan: win the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, enter the Met’s young-artist program, “and by the time I was 30-some odd,” she says, “I would be a billionaire, and I would be rich and famous, and I would have a Rolex ad.” She did win the Met auditions, only to discover, like many other winners, that the victory is not an automatic ticket to a Met career. “They took the other mezzo” into the young-artist program, she says, laughing. Bishop went to the Merola program instead, and then, she said, “clawed my way into the D houses.” Her first professional engagement was at the Met, but hardly in a marquee role — she was hired as a member of the chorus in Britten’s “Death in Venice.”
Still, she has since sung at the Met more than 60 times, including Venus in “Tannhäuser” and Enrichetta in “I Puritani.”
Bishop has recently found another way to expand her life in opera. Last year, she opened her own voice studio, the Potomac Vocal Institute — making a virtue out of a long gap between engagements to pursue another dream. The studio is burgeoning; in addition to a large group of private students, Bishop is setting up a variety of workshops for aspiring professionals.
“There’s a gap in the training,” she says, “for anyone who doesn’t get into the young-artist programs. All the young-artist programs will take singers one through nine. What happens to 10 through 17? They’re just as talented, but they’re off working at Arby’s, saving up minimum wage to try to take a lesson. There’s no training out there. I said, ‘I’ll fix that.’ ”
Through Bishop’s training sessions, young singers can try out new audition repertory in front of an audience; work with a conductor on the solo parts in big choral pieces that are many singers’ bread and butter, such as the Beethoven Ninth or the Verdi Requiem; or get a firm grounding in the small parts, known as comprimario roles, that often represent a young singer’s first professional contract: Flora or Annina or the doctor in “La traviata,” Suzuki or Goro in “Madama Butterfly.”
Talking about her students’ successes, she sounds almost more excited than discussing her own roles. Does she, at this point, have a preference?
“It’s like saying,” she answers, “which is better: a medium-rare steak when you're so hungry you can't stand it. Or your grandmother's apple pie one more time. I don't think at this point I could give either one up with equanimity.”
“But you know,” she adds, “even if I never set foot on a stage again” — hardly likely, given her crowded calendar — “I have nothing to complain about. There’s only one thing really left on my bucket list, and that’s Bayreuth.” In the meantime, she’s working on her Czech, because after she finishes “The Marriage of Figaro,” she’s off to the Met to cover “Jenufa.”
The Marriage of Figaro plays at the Washington National Opera from Sept. 22 to Oct. 2, with a special free simulcast Opera in the Outfield performance at Nationals Park on the Sept. 24. For tickets, go to kennedy-center.org/wno.