Fashion forward, cutting edge, risk taking. These are usually not the words that one would chose to describe an opera singer, whose art form is often seen as conservative and old school. Yet, soprano Alyson Cambridge has forged a unique path by honoring her many interests and passions and bringing those varied gifts to her blossoming opera career.
A Washington, D.C., area native, Cambridge graduated from Oberlin College with a double major in vocal performance and sociology and was attending the Curtis Institute of Music when she won the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. She joined the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program soon after and made her Met debut a year later as Frasquita in Carmen. In the decade that followed, she has made a name for herself as a lyric soprano performing such roles as Mimì, Violetta, Liù, Thaïs, Marguerite, and Donna Elvira at such prominent companies as the Metropolitan Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Washington National Opera, and musical capitals throughout Europe and Asia. Additionally, Cambridge has built a reputation as a fashionista and philanthropist and recently has been stepping out as a crossover artist and spokesperson for both charity and opera outreach.
Growing up in Arlington, Va., Cambridge was surrounded by a large variety of music favored by her Caribbean-African father and Swedish-American mother. Her father preferred disco, reggae, and calypso while her mother favored classical music, especially opera and symphonic music. Cambridge began piano lessons at age 4, and as a young girl she began imitating the singing she heard growing up in her household, including her mother’s beloved opera.
By chance, a neighbor overheard her singing and encouraged Cambridge to take voice lessons. But the young Cambridge wasn’t so sure about her future path. “I don’t really want to sing opera,” she told her first voice teacher. “I like Madonna and Whitney Houston.” Her teacher then asked her to sing in her “opera voice” and was quite surprised by the full sound coming from such a young singer. And so the path to her future career began at the tender age of 12.
Cambridge continued to study classical voice throughout high school even though she often hid that fact from her schoolmates because she “didn’t think it was cool.” She then went on to study voice at Oberlin and ended up getting a degree in sociology as well as vocal performance. After graduation, when she couldn’t decide whether to attend law school or pursue an opera career she realized that she wanted to give herself five years to “make it happen.” She was just one year into a master’s degree at the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music when she won the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions in 2003, which catapulted her into the career of her dreams.
Quite prophetically, as a young singer at Oberlin, she was once interviewed for a newspaper article during her senior year about her goals, and she said she wanted to make her Met debut before she turned 25. “They laughed at me,” she recalls. But she did reach that initial goal, and the ability to set goals and define her unique path became a trademark for the years to come.
Beginning her opera career as a young, biracial singer, Cambridge had been cautioned by many teachers about accepting too many Porgy and Bess roles because it was too easy for singers to get typecast. The “straight and narrow” path toward opera stardom was what was traditionally taught, and singers were warned about deviating from this formula. The music of Gershwin, however, was a personal favorite of Cambridge’s since her earliest years as a young voice student, when she performed the beloved “Summertime” at her high school senior recital; so it made sense that Porgy and Bess would eventually make it into her repertoire. What wasn’t expected was how her love and passion for the Great American Songbook would lead to many other opportunities while simultaneously building her operatic career and growing opera’s audience as well.
The turning point came when working with visionary opera director, Francesca Zambello, on Lyric Opera of Chicago’s premiere of Show Boat featuring a cast of internationally acclaimed opera singers including Cambridge as biracial singer, Julie Laverne. It was risky programing for the Midwest opera company with a cast featuring a mix of both established opera singers and musical theatre singers from the Chicago theatre community. Cambridge’s earlier success as Giulietta in The Tales of Hoffmann the previous season reassured much of the nervous apprehension.
Incredibly, the overwhelmingly positive response and reviews of this experimental production exceeded their wildest expectations. “It rocked the opera world!” exclaims Cambridge. And to both Cambridge’s career in crossover and American opera’s embrace of new, jazz-oriented programing, it seemed a match made in heaven.
Fresh from the success of Show Boat at both Lyric Opera of Chicago and Washington National Opera, another once-in-a-lifetime opportunity presented itself. Cambridge was approached about performing the role of Vi in a rarely performed, one-act early jazz opera by George Gershwin called Blue Monday. It was produced by innovative On Site Opera, founded by Eric Einhorn. “[The company] is dedicated to producing site-specific opera in nontraditional venues throughout New York,” explains the osopera.org website. “On Site Opera molds its productions to specific locations using physical space to create an environment in which the concept, storytelling, music, and performers unite to form an immersive, cohesive, and meaningful whole.”
Blue Monday was performed in the legendary Cotton Club of Harlem in New York City, where many jazz artists like Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington first got their start. And in the spirit of the original club, “each evening of the sold-out run, the doors opened an hour before the opera for cocktails and dancing accompanied by a live band,” says Cambridge. The production was wildly successful, with three extra performances added to satisfy the demand. “Friends who wouldn’t come to see me perform at the Metropolitan Opera were eager to watch me sing opera in this new, fun setting.”
Since then, Cambridge’s crossover repertoire has grown, and she finds herself more and more in demand. “Many of my concerts start with a set of arias for the first half, with the second set consisting of selections from the Great American Songbook, musical theatre, or spirituals,” she explains. “People find this mix to be very appealing.”
Indeed, they do. Recently Cambridge was asked to perform for the 75th Anniversary Marian Anderson Celebration “Of Thee We Sing” televised for the BET (Black Entertainment Television) Network, sharing the stage with such luminaries as Dionne Warwick and Jessye Norman. And then, just 48 hours before the performance, the producers asked Cambridge if she would be interested in hosting a 90-minute documentary about the event, which was broadcast internationally on BET this summer. True to form, she agreed. Her motto: “Why not branch out?”
When looking over her career breakthroughs, Cambridge affirms that taking risks has been at the forefront of her recent successes. She has also carefully chosen a management team that supports her many areas of interest. Besides working with traditional opera and classical management, she also has another manager for crossover, concert work, film, and television—and yet another for commercial modeling and voiceover.
Eager as she may be for these new opportunities, finding the time for this extra work is a challenge. “It really needs to be scheduled during singing downtimes—which, luckily, are few and far between,” says Cambridge. Modeling and commercial work often require flexible schedules as jobs can come in suddenly under tight deadlines. Recently, she was asked to do a photo shoot for O Magazine but since she was currently rehearsing in London, the shoot wasn’t able to come together. Even so, she remains open to interesting future projects that may come her way when schedules align.
For those wishing to pursue crossover work, Cambridge is quite clear. “You must have respect for the art and hone your craft,” she says. “It’s not enough to just coach opera and classical.” Cambridge also studies, listens to, and works with crossover coaches in musical theatre and jazz as well. “I’m not just doing crossover and jazz on a lark—it’s something I take really seriously. I give equal weight and importance to the training in both things.” And although there have been naysayers along the way, Cambridge has found that most people have been extremely embracing of any crossover venture that she has decided to take on.
And old-fashioned concerns about “diluting her brand” by “straying from the straight and narrow” opera track don’t seem to be valid anymore in today’s evolving scene. “The way opera is being produced and how it’s getting out there is changing,” explains Cambridge. “Opera on a grand scale is becoming more and more expensive to produce-—not that it doesn’t have a place. But companies need to develop new and different ways to bring opera to new audiences in an affordable and creative way.”
Audiences are also demanding fresh approaches to the genre, including innovative repertoire, which includes both daring, new commissions as well as welcoming classic, early jazz-oriented musicals such as Show Boat into the American operatic tradition. Opera singers with the training and flexibility to branch out into these new venues and repertoire will be in great demand as American opera continues to evolve into new areas.
Even with her crossover career breaking into mainstream, Cambridge still manages to represent opera with glamour and class. This fall, she returns to the BET Network for the Soul Train Music Awards filming on Nov. 7 in Las Vegas (for broadcast later in December). She will be opening the show with a possible duet with up-and-coming young bass, Soloman Howard, and with Mike Tyson as host. In October 2015, she will officially serve in residence as a South Africa Ambassador with a three-city tour planned for 2015, with outreach and programming coordinated with the U.S. State Department while there.
Cambridge’s upcoming performance schedule is still filled with several productions of La bohème and other traditional soprano heroines with both Mimì and Musetta scheduled for 2014/2015 and beyond. And 2015 marks her role debut in Madama Butterfly with Florentine Opera. Clearly, Cambridge’s forays into crossover and other commercial media has only strengthened her unique brand, while exposing new audiences to the glamour, excitement, and power of live opera.
Opera Worth Saving
The dedication, hard work, and constant traveling required to build an opera career on this level is immense, and with the changing economic reality of many American opera companies, singers are often caught by surprise as companies juggle budget cuts, funding shortages, and other desperate measures in order to stay afloat. Contracted to sing Mimì for San Diego Opera in 2015, Cambridge was literally at the London airport on her way home after singing another Mimì at Royal Albert Hall when she read on her Facebook feed that San Diego Opera was shutting down. Just two weeks prior, she had tweeted how she was “looking forward to singing Mimì at San Diego Opera in 2015” and even received a tweet back from San Diego Opera. Contracts were signed and press releases had been sent out.
When she saw all of the posts on Facebook about the company’s apparent demise, she thought, “Wait a minute! But my manager doesn’t even know! What’s going on?” Sure enough, 30 minutes later, a flurry of emails ensued from her management team ensuring Cambridge that they were “taking care of this. We’ll sort it all out and figure out what is going on.” Clearly everyone on all levels of the business was blindsided by the sudden decision.
Two months later, the now epic story of San Diego Opera has evolved into the complete restructuring of the company through the power of social media and devoted opera fans from all over the world. And this drama has a happy ending. Last May, San Diego Opera announced that they had successfully raised $4.5 million, including more than $2.1 million in an Internet-based crowdfunding campaign.
The 2015 season, the company’s 50th, has been confirmed and the season opener is none other than La bohème, featuring Alyson Cambridge as Mimì along with a young and vibrant cast. Excitement is building for the rebirth of this refreshed opera company, with everyone involved strongly committed to showing San Diego and the world exactly why opera is worth saving.
Having the courage to take risks and break out when presented with opportunities has not only opened up Alyson Cambridge’s crossover career, but her choices have broadened her path as an opera singer and opera spokesperson as well. There is irony that in breaking out of the “opera box,” opera as an art form is strengthened and reborn. With fresh, cutting-edge young artists like Alyson Cambridge leading the way, American opera can surely look forward to greater understanding and acceptance as it moves into a new and exciting era of opera innovation. It’s about time.