American soprano Alyson Cambridge is one busy opera star these days.
Talking during a brief stay in Washington—she performed before the Supreme Court in a recital, sponsored by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg—Cambridge, who grew up in Arlington, Va., went to Sidwell Friends School and the Levine School of Music, was preparing to go to Chicago this week. She will return Dec. 1 to take part in the “2014 Christmas Concert for the Troops” at the Kennedy Center. That still leaves her performance in Las Vegas at the 2014 Soul Train Awards, which will air Sunday, Nov. 30, on BET at 8 p.m.
“It’s been kind of amazing, that’s for sure,” Cambridge said in an interview with The Georgetowner. “To be able to do all this in so many different venues and occasions. It’s a great opportunity for myself and opera. I feel very lucky, and I’ve worked very hard.”
Cambridge, a rangy soprano with red-carpet beauty and style, has of late become especially familiar with roles for the Washington National Opera, where she just finished up an acclaimed performance as Musetta in Puccini’s “La Boheme.” Before that she had been a highly effective and affecting, moving Julie in WNO Artistic Director Francesca Zambello’s s production of “Showboat.” Zambello also directed her in London as Mimi in”La Boheme,” which she will also do for the San Diego Opera this season, as well as performing as Bess in “Porgy and Bess” with the Spoleto Festival USA.
“I absolutely love working with Francesca,” Cambridge said. “She is such a risk taker, such a visionary. I guess in a way I think of her as my opera godmother. She has had so much faith in me, and I’ve learned not to be afraid to take risks from her.”
One of those risks is a burning desire to branch out into other genres, other kinds of music. “I would never give up opera,” Cambridge said. “But I like to explore other kinds of music the great American songbook, jazz and pop. And it’s also a way to broaden your audience, to give other people a chance to hear you and see you. I know ‘Showboat’ and certainly ‘Porgy and Bess’ can be seen technically as operas, but they’re also seen as musicals in the traditional sense of the word. The singing, the songs and the music is different from traditional opera music. They’re truly American works.”
With Cambridge, the seeing is part and parcel of the entire package. She is a vivacious presence—and voice on the phone—who’s often been compared to the equally glamorous pop star Vanessa Williams in her style and looks, which, from a host of images on the web, seems equally sexy, high-cheek-boned exotic, and classy, combined with an original sense of style and fashion. “I like trying new things, new looks,” said Cambridge, whose father is African-American-Caribbean and whose mother is Scandinavian-American.
Her opera career was launched auspiciously, when she became one of the youngest ever Grand Prize winners of the international opera competition at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. This recognition led to seven seasons at the Met along with a major, still growing national and international career, abetted with recitals, recordings and performances at the great opera houses.
“The BET thing was very different,” Cambridge said. “I had performed in BET and Centric’s documentary and concert ‘Of Thee We Sing: The Marian Anderson Story,’ which they liked. So, they asked me to do this.” The show celebrates the musical accomplishments of R&B, soul and hip-hop artists. It will include performances by Chris Brown, Elle Varner, Lil’ Kim, Missy Elliot and MC Lyte. “And then there’s me,” Cambridge said. “This will be the first time an opera singer has been on the Soul Train awards. I’ll be doing some selections from ‘La Boheme’ and a vocal arrangement in which hip-hop connects with classical, which is a challenge for me. But I heard that the show gets something like an audience of 4.5 million—which is probably more than I’ve had in my whole career. But think of the opportunities for opera in this. It’s like being an opera ambassador to the world of contemporary pop and hip hop.”
On Monday, Dec. 1, Cambridge will be doing something very different at the Kennedy Center, joining stars like Charlie Daniels, Marlee Martin, Kristin Chenoweth, Gary Sinise and the Lt. Dan Band, the Fairfax Symphony Orchestra and Medal of Honor recipient SFC Sammy Davis for the Christmas concert for the troops. The concert is sponsored by the Gary Sinise Foundation, which honors the country’s defenders, veterans, first responders and their families.”
“I am so glad to be able to do this and feel honored,” said Cambridge, who will sing “Ave Maria” and “White Christmas.”
“I love being in the world of opera,” she said. “But I also love the great American Songbook composers like Gershwin. Cambridge lives in New York and remembers walking her dog Lucy—a poodle-bichon—and strolling past the Gershwin home on her route. “It gave me goose bumps,” she said.