When you listen to the gifted mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong talk about opera, art, her life as a star in a changing, demanding art form, you think you’re hearing things you’ve heard before. But in truth she’s talking about things with a clarity and an articulation that seems entirely refreshing, in all probability in much the same way she performs and sings.
DeShong — the words “important” and “rising star” keep appearing in her notices — is currently playing the “pants” or “trouser” role of the heroic knight Ruggiero in Washington National Opera’s first-ever production of Handel’s “Alcina,” which stars soprano Angela Meade in the title role of the powerful sorceress who enchants her swains.
Being a mezzo-soprano, for a singer with self-evident gifts, is an advantage when it comes to roles. The range, from high to low and in between, is considerable, allowing her to dive into roles others can’t. “It presents lots of challenges to be sure, but also opportunities. And that’s particularly true for playing male roles, or the pants parts,” said DeShong in a recent interview.
For DeShong, though, this isn’t just about gender, the low tones or trying to act like a man.
“Certainly, there’s certain preparations — using your body in certain ways, gestures and postures — but I think you have to imagine your way into the part, into that man and who he thinks he is, as a man, and a particular kind of man. It’s not about genre clichés.
“This seems particularly topical today, but you also have to look at him. He’s a knight, and knights do certain things, they embody bravery and courage. And when Alcina enchants and bewitches him, he becomes something else, which is very frustrating and confusing.
“I love this opera. To me, it’s all about magic, it’s a magical thing. That’s so important. And the music is magical to that effect. It’s beautiful to perform onstage. I and everybody else who’s a part of it has an intense relationship with magic.”
In addition to DeShong’s voice and its range, she’s considered a fine actress. “It’s different with opera, but I think there’s been this talk about acting and singing, but they’re not opposites. Acting is an integral part of the music. You approach character through the music, with an appreciation of the text and story. You want people to listen to the music, but you also want them to understand and remember your character.”
Opera as a form isn’t particularly famous for the literary value of the writing, the libretto, especially among the works of the romantic composers, where words often serve the music in ways that can be lyrical but not necessary function as lyrics.
The daughter of a mother who is a hospice care provider, and a United Methodist minister, DeShong was drawn to music naturally. Both her parents are musical and she was singing by the age of 3.
“It could have been anything, but I think opera and singing are perfect for me,” she said. “It’s been the most rewarding, exacting part of my life. I could have been another kind of singer, but this was my life.”
And she’s risen fast — and furiously in the sense of time spent, and success —in her world. From Oberlin College, she spent a number of very visible years at Lyric Opera of Chicago. “Chicago is still the city I’ve spent the most of my time in.”
She’s performed here at WNO, where she received an Artist of the Year award in 2010 for her portrayal of the Composer in Richard Strauss’s “Ariadne auf Naxos.” She has performed at the Metropolitan Opera, San Francisco Opera, LA Opera, the Canadian Opera Company (where her 2014 performance as Suzuki in “Madame Butterfly” was acclaimed), the Vienna State Opera and the Gyndebourne Festival, as well as with leading orchestras.
There’s something breathless about the complete list and trajectory as a star singer. There’s challenge and sacrifice involved, and some things that radiate in ways few lives do, but there’s also absence.
“There’s trade-offs, sure, and things you miss out on. There’s the travel, which few people get to do, and there’s the travel which takes up huge chunks of your life. There’s things you miss in your family, or with your husband. There’s weddings, births, dates, holidays, those important parts of life that you don’t always have.”
She’s aware of the status of opera and classical music as precious parts of a culture, but that it always demands not only keeping an audience, but renewing and achieving new audiences.
“People — artists and institutional leaders — are trying to finding ways to attract new and young audiences. Personally, I think if younger people come to opera, they will find it fresh, a brand-new thing, because they haven’t been exposed to it. Opera is recognizable, human and compelling, to everybody. It’s not just a matter of tradition.”
“I consider myself as somewhat shy,” she said, “but there’s the irony that I work onstage. My voice, my work, is on display, and you’re being very extroverted. Everyone can see and hear you, enjoy or not, critically. I mean, sure, I love the applause, who doesn’t? But here you are in a moment and there’s nothing like it. I like the performance, that moment most of all. I’m not fond of perfection or flawlessness, necessarily, which is what you look to achieve during that moment, that instant. Anything can happen — you forget a phrase, you reach for something and go beyond it, you feel a connection to the music and the words and the audience. You can’t repeat that.”
On her website, you can find a blog, “A Singer’s Suitcase,” with images of whatever seems to stir her into an impressive quietness: a bench in a city, a skyline, candy wrappers, streets in a European city, a container of honey, blueberries in a stylish dish.
They look like moments of clarity, and you can hear them in her voice — at apex or in conversation.