Expect the Unexpected : Elizabeth DeShong

In a slight twist on the words of Forrest Gump, Elizabeth DeShong’s repertoire is like a box of chocolates . . . you never know what you’re going to get.

“I seem to have the inherent element of surprise. When people look at me, they think I’m a coloratura soprano,” the mezzo says by phone from Akron, Ohio. It is mid-February, and she is home after singing in a production of Nabucco at Lyric Opera of Chicago, a company that played a pivotal role in her formative years. “When I sing Fenena in Nabucco, they hear depth of tone. When I sing Cenerentola, people might not think that I also sing Fenena. They don’t know what to expect. I can’t be pegged to a certain type of role, which makes people curious. I tend to give the unexpected. It’s fun.”

And that flexibility might owe itself to, of all people, her voice teachers—that group often known for trying to categorize singers. “I really think my adaptability developed because none of my teachers ever put me in a box,” she speculates. “I wasn’t told that I was any specific thing—a Wagnerian, a Rossini specialist, a Verdi mezzo, a big voice, a little voice—or that I was destined to become any specific thing. My job was, and is, to develop and maintain a solid, healthy vocal technique.

“I was told, ‘A good mezzo should have a solid high C.’ OK, I’ll work on that. ‘Your voice should be even from top to bottom.’ You are right; I’ll make that happen. ‘Avoid doing heavier repertoire too soon, even if pushed by people in the business.’ We all have unique instruments that will naturally be suited for certain types of repertoire, but a healthy, well-rounded technique will give you more options.”

This August, DeShong returns to the Glyndebourne Festival as Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Peter Hall’s 1981 production is being revived as part of a celebration of Shakespeare’s 400th birthday. Often singled out in reviews for her portrayal of Hermia, DeShong first sang the role as a student at the Chautauqua Institution, followed by productions at the Canadian Opera Company, the Metropolitan Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, and the Aix-en-Provence Festival.

Previously at Glyndebourne, four years ago, she appeared in La Cenerentola, conducted by James Gaffigan, whom DeShong amazed the first time he heard her voice. “She walked into our first rehearsal, and I thought, ‘What a kind and warm person with a genuine smile,’” Gaffigan shares. “And then she started to sing. Time stood still. Everyone’s jaw dropped. Then we all started to smile. How was this voice coming from her? She was soft-spoken and gentle. Calm and collected. Then she completely let loose with a huge sound. Perfect intonation and technique, gorgeous sound, and a role prepared to perfection . . . . Her voice is versatile. Her technique in fast passages is incredible, and she has a huge instrument that can carry effortlessly over the biggest of orchestrations. I was skeptical to do 18 Cenerentolas, yet every performance was an event with her. The final aria [got] a response like a rock concert from the audience.”

Home for DeShong as a child was Selinsgrove, a small town in central Pennsylvania. The daughter of a United Methodist minister and a nurse, she participated in family singalongs at the piano—classic musicals, church music, and American songs, to name a few genres. Through these experiences, DeShong found herself wondering about her musical destiny. But her competitive side set its sights on what she describes as the Olympics of singing: opera. DeShong decided that being part of the world of “singing and theatricality” was her calling card and she was willing to work hard to achieve operatic status.

Besides providing a musically nurturing home, DeShong’s mother and father also provided access to her first piano and voice teachers—piano teacher through word-of-mouth, and voice teacher by seeking a recommendation from the head of the vocal department at Susquehanna University, located in Selinsgrove. DeShong trained as a pianist and vocalist, but earned her undergraduate degree in voice performance at the Oberlin Conservatory, where she graduated a semester early before attending the Curtis Institute of Music for two years.

“The early graduation came as a bit of a surprise,” DeShong recalls. “Mikael Eliasen, head of the vocal department at Curtis, whom I had worked with [during two summers] at the Chautauqua Institution, came to Oberlin to audition some of the older students. He asked me to sing for him. Shortly thereafter, I received a call stating that I was accepted into the master’s program at Curtis and could attend as soon as possible. I had been taking a full class load at Oberlin and was able to work out an early graduation.”

Ryan Opera Center Comes Calling

While at Chautauqua, DeShong also met Richard Pearlman, director of the Lyric Opera Center for American Artists (the future Ryan Opera Center) at Lyric Opera of Chicago. Through connections with Pearlman and other members of Lyric’s music staff, DeShong entered the Ryan Opera Center’s audition process: after the initial applications, a group of singers was selected for the first round of in-person auditions—and from that group, about 20 singers, including DeShong, were chosen to sing onstage in the finals.

From the fall of 2005 to the spring of 2008, DeShong attended the Ryan Opera Center, learning how to apply her training from Oberlin and Curtis and observing how internationally renowned artists rehearse and how the choices they made in rehearsal did or did not translate into performances. “You can’t learn those lessons in school and you have opportunities that are hard to find outside of a Young Artist Program—opportunities to meet people, to sing for people. While not impossible, it can be a difficult journey into an operatic career without attending a Young Artist Program,” DeShong says.

Luck with Management?

Since the question is often posed about a singer’s difficult life and career choices, particularly when making the transition from student to professional, DeShong takes the position of making a continual, combined decision: having a career at all. “You accept a large degree of uncertainty and have to keep choosing this career. It is never easy or predictable, and I say that less than a decade into my professional, outside-a-Young Artist Program career. You will miss things. I missed my brother’s wedding because of a last-minute flight cancellation. You will miss births, funerals, all kinds of things. After each one of those moments, you have to choose [this career] again and choose to keep loving it.”

Come 2008, when it was time for DeShong to depart the Ryan Opera Center, she had one big thing in her favor and one big thing still to be determined. Thanks to auditions that took place while she was in the program, an engagement was already lined up—Hänsel in the Glyndebourne Tour that fall. The question mark was how to find the right person to represent her as a manager.

“You get lots of feedback in Young Artist Programs, but they’re also trying to define you in short periods of time, and the very quality that now sets me apart from other artists, namely flexibility of repertoire, may have been confusing at the time. People want to put you in a corner, so it could be hard for [potential managers] to decide how to market me.” The person who ended up being her manager heard her performance of “Non più mesta” at a Stars of Lyric Opera at Millennium Park concert. Was it luck? “It was good fortune that a lot of work went into helping create. I don’t believe in luck in this business.”

The Mind . . . the Voice . . . the Song

What DeShong does believe is that frame of mind and mental preparation are exceptionally important. Specifically, if something makes sense to your mind, it will make sense to your voice. But that theory does not mean “I want to sing this role, therefore I will sing it.” So, what exactly does it mean? “By taking the time to understand words and their intentions,” DeShong explains, “we can more fully understand why the composer set words to music in the way he or she did. Then, the next step is making the text personal with my voice. In recitative, I might take out a rest to suit the language, determine the pace of each line. In arias, I might add embellishments, but only those that have real intention. This detailed mind work gives birth to emotional and vocal freedom. Intention is what makes the music meaningful.”

This approach to text extends to art songs, a genre of which DeShong is an ardent proponent. “In opera, we can hide behind scenic distractions, but an art song strips everything down to essentials. You have to focus on moments, like telling a child a bedtime story—enunciate more clearly, speak with heightened dynamics, communicate with facial subtleties. You communicate on a smaller scale and have to be detailed and effective in a far more intimate way.” DeShong argues that, even when practicing, singers should sit with art songs in private time and give themselves those moments to focus small.

Self-Coaching “Because I Can”

Much of DeShong’s practice time is spent at the keyboard, since she credits her training as a pianist for her decision to self-coach all of her roles ever since leaving the Ryan Opera Center. “How to prepare is an individual choice. I prefer to make all of the initial decisions about a role myself and then incorporate ideas and suggestions from others as we rehearse,” she says. “If called for, being prepared means writing my own ornamentation and shaping my recitative so that it flows properly within the language. My goal is always to arrive prepared in such a way that, if the show needed to go up immediately, I would be ready. There is always more that can be done, but arriving ready to put ‘icing on the cake’ instead of ‘baking the cake’ is the ideal.” She reaches out to one of her trusted coaches if she needs assistance with language or if she wants an extra set of ears.

Why does she believe that her self-coaching is successful? “From my perspective, I have always been prepared, vocally healthy, full of ideas, and ready to collaborate. I also know which roles are healthy for me. I don’t want to turn any corners, vocally, that I can’t come back from—but I also don’t want to be bored. I need challenges. At the end of the day, I know my voice as well as anybody. If I play though something, I can judge the role for myself.”

From the perspective of pianist, opera coach, and conductor, Eric Weimer, who worked with DeShong primarily at the Ryan Opera Center, says her abilities are “truly unusual for a young singer. It’s not only because she has the facility of learning the pitches and rhythms of her own part. She obviously also has the capacity to play the piano-vocal reduction and determine how her part fits into the overall musical fabric. She also has the intelligence and discipline to come to grips with what it means to sing a foreign language—not only how to pronounce each word correctly, but also how to present a line in a way that is appropriate for that particular moment in the drama.”

To put coaching in context, Weimer says most singers require coaching for different reasons, such as learning the pitches of their roles, pronunciation of foreign languages, vocal issues, and ornamentation and other aspects of Baroque and/or Bel Canto style. “Elizabeth,” he says, “is one of the few who is a complete package, so-to-speak, and manages to prepare her roles to a world-class level with a minimum of outside help.” Of course, as Weimer points out, self-coaching does have economic advantages, but he still encourages singers “to take the responsibility to learn as much as they possibly can on their own.”

Asked for an example of how she creates a backstory and characterization for one of her roles while self-coaching, DeShong highlights Suzuki in Madama Butterfly as “one of the most complex and important background stories that I’ve developed. In productions that don’t understand her importance, she can be overlooked. When I’ve played her as an older woman, I think of her has having raised Butterfly from a young girl and, therefore, she has developed this intense loyalty and a watchful eye. Maybe she loved and lost her own version of Pinkerton. Suzuki is even stronger in her silences than when she sings. She is the purest and most selfless example of love that that entire opera presents. She has nothing to gain. She goes into poverty with Butterfly, is abused by Butterfly. She’s not a sister, not a mother—but she stays by her side.”

This is DeShong’s take on this particular character. Just as she has her unique voice and backstories, she encourages rising singers to be themselves. “Be the best you that you can be. It sounds like a cereal box advertisement or something, but it’s true!” she says with a laugh. “You are inherently different from what others are offering. Young singers tend to want to imitate their idols, but we don’t need replicas. The whole beauty of art is hearing something different. That’s why we go back and see 20 Bohèmes. We want to hear different voices. Be something new. Living the character in the moment, hearing everything as if it’s the first time, and responding as if it’s the first time will give something unique.”

Britten and Berg, or Drama and Math

“Britten found me,” DeShong states. “His music is beautiful and dramatic, giving me everything I want in an opera. Early on, it is often helpful to train in your native language. When you’re looking for high-quality music in English, you can’t help but be directed to Britten.” Echoing those sentiments, she continues, “Hermia also found me. While at Chautauqua, A Midsummer Night’s Dream was on the schedule, and I was cast as Hermia, one of my first full operatic roles. I’ve sung in five other full runs of ‘Midsummer’ since then, which is funny because it’s not done that frequently.”

Once again speaking to the flexibility of her voice, DeShong speculates that she is often cast as Hermia because of her comfortable lower register. “The opera’s dramatic scenes call for a strong chest voice,” she observes. The fact that critics have often praised her singing and acting comes as a pleasant surprise. “It is nice to be noticed in an ensemble piece,” she says, but also describes the possible rationale for Hermia being singled out: “Hermia gets such a full emotional circle throughout the piece. She is feeling everything without magic—love, fear, betrayal—more than some of the other lovers in the piece. I love her—there’s a bit of me in her, being spunky and feisty! You think she’s one thing, but she’s so much stronger.”

While Hermia has proven to be familiar territory, DeShong took on the most complicated challenge of her career last fall, learning three roles for the Met’s new production of Lulu—the Dresser (act 3), Schoolboy (act 2), and Page (act 3), all of whom appear in their own acts, and all traditionally sung by the same singer. “I knew of the piece, I knew it was hard, and I wanted the challenge,” DeShong says. “It put all of my training to use. I have prepared roles that are infinitely longer, but Lulu is a difficult, difficult piece and certainly rewarding when done. It took time for me to make that real mental and emotional connection to it.” She pauses for a moment, as though looking for the right description. “The opera just feels like math homework, all about counting, putting parts together. There’s no end to the rhythmic and tonal complexities. While performing, I felt like I had a calculator going. Mental math at all times.”

Moving Up the Career Ladder

Sometimes timing makes all the difference. Hermia, a role that DeShong learned at Curtis, studying with Marlena Malas, proved to be a significant role in her career. Perhaps the same will happen with Isabella in L’italiana in Algeri and Adalgisa in Norma, roles she will sing for the first time in the 2016–17 season at the Met and Lyric Opera of Chicago, respectively. Significantly, Isabella is her first lead role at the Met. “It’s a natural progression,” she says of both roles. “I’ve been prepared for them since the beginning of my professional career. It was a matter of having a place to do them, and I was available at the right time.”

And with Rossini roles like Rosina, Arsace, and Cenerentola already under her belt, both Isabella and Adalgisa reflect her further ventures into Bel Canto ever since being trained in that genre. “It’s the gold standard of vocalism that creates your foundation for vocal health . . . optimal conditions to move through trills, cadenzas, and long phrases,” she observes. In future years, dramatic Rossini operas are on DeShong’s schedule, as is varied concert repertoire, including Mahler, and she is looking for an opportunity to sing Lucretia in The Rape of Lucretia.

“I plan to stay firmly rooted in both operatic and concert repertoire. I like to connect with the audience in the concert hall and I like to think that the opera house/concert hall connections are the same. You strive for detail. People can see you up close in the concert hall—when you’re so moved by the music that a tear streams down your face, you can share that with them. But the goal is the same—immediacy of feeling, regardless of what’s going on around you.” She names Peter Lieberson’s Neruda Songs, in a concert with the Cleveland Orchestra in 2013, as the most emotionally charged piece she has sung. “It just hits you right in the heart and in the gut. All pain and joy. You can’t help but be brought to tears.” One reviewer described her performance that night as “mesmeric.”

The Ultimate Audience Connection

Speaking of audience connections, DeShong tells a wonderful story related to a 2012 performance of Hansel and Gretel at Lyric Opera of Chicago that illustrates exactly why she continues to choose this career.

“I received an e-mail from a girl entering high school at the time. She loves to sing but has terrible anxieties. People discouraged her from making music because she made things difficult and had embarrassing panic attacks. But her love for singing kept her wanting to find a way. She went to her first opera, Hansel and Gretel at Lyric. Prior to this, she had learned the “Evening Prayer” with her school choir, but didn’t know it was from ‘Hansel.’ When we got to that portion of the opera, she recognized it. It connected. She sat there, in tears, hearing this song that she would sing to herself to stay calm. She wrote to tell me how much that performance meant to her. She felt so calm, more settled. My performance had touched her. I wouldn’t know how much it meant to her.

“I was touched by her openness, her courage to reach out,” DeShong continues. “To put that on paper to a complete stranger, just hoping that the person wouldn’t make fun or dismiss or ignore. As I read it, I was in a puddle of tears. That’s why I do this. Opera is important, not fleeting or trivial. You don’t know who’s in the audience or what they’re going through. I love applause and excitement—but having one story like that, I can walk off every stage happy.

“I told her there are lots of ways to be involved in music without being a singer. I let her know that opera requires the talents of so many people. The love of music and the training make people’s skills in supporting and guiding performing artists all the more effective and valuable. Opera is a collaborative art that is the sum of many parts, all of which are important.

“When she found out I was coming back for Nabucco, she convinced her parents to let her come and she brought a friend. I met them and found that they were over the moon about the music and their experience. They were in awe of opera, of what people and music are capable of. It was affirming in a way that a compliment could never be—just to see that joy on her face and her friend’s face.

“I don’t need any other stories or any other compliments. That experience with one young girl was enough.”

Greg Waxberg

Greg Waxberg is a writer and magazine editor for The Pingry School and an award-winning freelance writer. He can be contacted at GregOpera@aol.com.