Elizabeth DeShong is singing big roles in the biggest houses. She’s sung Suzuki (the role she’s singing in a Canadian Opera Company production that’s opening tonight at the Four Seasons Centre) at the Metropolitan Opera and San Francisco Opera Company, Cenerentola at Glyndebourne, the Composer (Ariadne auf Naxos) at Washington National Opera, Hansel & Hermia in Lyric Opera of Chicago. In my review of the COC’s 2011 Cenerentola—one of their most impressive productions of the past decade—I said the following:
Elizabeth DeShong as Cinderella was thoroughly musical, not just coloratura & high notes, but a beautiful tone in her lower register as well.
I could have said a great deal more about her acting, and dramatic ability will be a key in the new COC Butterfly. While the other principals -Butterfly / Pinkerton / Sharpless- are double cast, DeShong appears in all 12 performances between now and Oct 31st. Her performance is fundamental to the success of the show.
On the occasion of the opening, I ask Elizabeth DeShong ten questions: five about herself and five more about undertaking the role of Suzuki.
1) Are you more like your father or your mother?
I’d say, I’m a pretty even split between the two of them. My mother is a “doer”.
If there is something that needs to be done, she is on it with laser-like
focus. To that end, I am very determined and focused, which helps in such a
competitive field. There, also, isn’t a harder worker. My mother is a hospice
care provider, and a very good one. Perhaps, I’m flattering myself, but I like
to think that some of the innate strength, tenderness, and ability to sense
the needs of others that she brings to those that she cares for, I can bring to
the characters I portray, especially a character like Suzuki.
My father is a United Methodist minister. While my calling was not to the
church, I am certain that observing my father’s ability to reach people and
present ideas in an honest, and approachable way, has given me, if not
skills, the courage to try. Even though ministry is, from the outside, an
extroverted field, my father is an introvert who has pushed himself outside
of his comfort zone in order to do work that, he believes, is greater than
himself. By seeing my father push through personal boundaries and touch
people’s lives through his work, I gained the confidence (without even
knowing it) to pursue my own goals and the ability to view my work as
something for others.
2) What is the best thing or worst thing about being an opera singer?
3) Who do you like to listen to or watch?
My most frequently listened to playlists include The Punch Brothers, Etta James, Dusty
Springfield, Judy Garland, Janis Joplin, and Ben Folds.
If I’ve already prepared a role, and want to be inspired, I seek out recordings of
4) What ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?
I’d love to be a more confident swimmer. My husband is a certified scuba diver,
and it would be incredible to explore the ocean with him. The videos he captures
on our GoPro are so serene and beautiful! As someone who believes that animals
are meant to be viewed in their natural habitats, and not in captivity, I’d love to see
the life that abounds in our oceans first-hand.
5) When you’re just relaxing and not working what is your favorite thing to do?
I’m happiest if I’m being “productive”. What that means for me is, to “relax”, I end
up binge watching “Gilmore Girls” while knitting a scarf, or doing cross-stitch, or
writing out all of my Christmas cards in October, or online shopping for birthday
presents six months in advance, or researching vacations that I will take two years
from now… You get the picture.
Five more about preparing to play Suzuki in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Madama Butterfly, beginning October 10th.
1-Please talk about the challenges in the role of Suzuki.
Before I got to know Suzuki, and she was just a distant note on my calendar, people would ask me about upcoming roles, and I often shyly responded, “Oh, just Suzuki…”, and went on to list more easily appreciated roles like Cinderella and Hänsel. But, treasure is often hidden, and Suzuki is just that.
Suzuki is truly one of the more interesting characters I’ve portrayed. From the outside, it can be easy to dismiss her, if she is evaluated based on title or by number of notes sung. The challenge in portraying her to her full potential, is to be 100% committed to giving and receiving energy and intention at all times. When Suzuki is quiet, there is a reason. When she speaks, there is a reason. The focus of her gaze, at all times, is intentional. She is a servant, confidant, friend, protector, peacekeeper, etc.. When she speaks, her words are sincere and true. We should all be so lucky to have a friend like Suzuki.
Onstage, as a colleague, a good Suzuki can make Butterfly’s life a lot easier, or a lot harder. In this production, I move screens to motivate light cues, I dress and undress Butterfly, I sneak water to singers, I choose stillness over action to facilitate focus on Butterfly’s emotional journey, I help guide our child actors, etc.. So, the demands on a good Suzuki, are many.
Vocally, the role, again, can be deceiving. You need a meaty lower register, but flexibility at the top of your voice to pull back dynamically in the more tender moments. You can really paint her text with a wide color palette. The trickiest part of the pacing, is that there are long stretches where Suzuki doesn’t sing, but also can’t leave the stage. We she does re-enter vocally, Puccini isn’t exceptionally kind with the dynamics and register in which he writes her lines.
Altogether, Suzuki is the kind of character that is as important as you make her.
2- What’s your favourite moment in the opera?
Dramatically, there is a small moment between Suzuki and Butterfly that always resonates strongly with me. When Butterfly enters and discovers Sharpless and Kate Pinkerton, Suzuki breaks down. Butterfly comes to Suzuki and says that she shouldn’t cry. She says that Suzuki has been good. In this moment, I always gently shake my head “no”. I think Suzuki always feels she should have done more to protect Butterfly. It highlights the constant struggle between duty and friendship, that Suzuki feels throughout the opera.
Musically, the Act 3 trio between Pinkerton, Sharpless, and Suzuki is a thrill to sing. There is tremendous musical and emotional release expressed by each of the characters. You can feel the tension in the theater so strongly in this moment. I look forward to it every night!
3-How do you relate to the character and the way she’s portrayed, as a modern woman in a western culture?
It seems to me, that we are all wrapped and seasoned with what is deemed appropriate
and/or admirable in our individual cultures. That said, we are all human, and subject to the effects of love, friendship, loss, duty, betrayal, etc.. Cultures and their ideals clash in this piece, but the underlying feelings are recognizable and relatable, regardless of nationality.
On a more basic level, there is nothing out of the ordinary about a teenage girl who gets pregnant, is abandoned by the father, is left with a responsibility that she is unprepared for, but continues to idealize her circumstances. The life of any teenager is filled with extreme highs and extreme lows. How many of us still recall our first loves with rose-colored glasses?
4- How do you feel about showing actual tears and emotion onstage (and how do you control or reveal your emotions in this role)?
Suzuki is a character that is constantly balancing the ideals of duty and friendship. There are times when it is appropriate for her to remain silent and within the bounds of her station. However, there are personal moments that are so out of the realm of her normal experience, that she can’t help but be overcome with emotion. It is clearly written in the words and music. To me, there is no harm in crying actual tears and showing real emotion. Because of the way Suzuki is paced musically, there is more than enough time to recover and sing comfortably.
More often than not, I shed real tears onstage, and I can’t think of a reason not to allow myself that release, since it is so clearly within what the character is feeling.
5- Is there a teacher or influence you’d care to name that you especially admire?
There are so many people that I could name, who have helped me on my musical
journey. However, special credit has to be given to the educators who teach us to
love music and inspire us to achieve in our early years. With that in mind, I have to
give special credit to one of my earliest music educators, Vi Carr. Vi Carr was my
first piano teacher. She created a space in her home where a young girl could come
and learn, feel safe, but, also gently encouraged when she could have pushed
herself a little bit harder in her practicing. After many years together, nurturing
my piano skills, she had the generosity of spirit to say that she had taken me as far
as she could in my education, and pointed me in the direction of a college
professor who would audition me and allow me to join his studio. Had I not had
her type of warm guidance as a child, I would never have had the skills or
confidence necessary to go as far as I have in my current field. I admire all
educators, not only in music, that inspire a love of learning.
Elizabeth DeShong appears in all 12 performances of the COC’s production of Madama Butterfly, beginning tonight October 10th, through the 31st at the Four Seasons Centre. For further information click the picture: