In Tune: Mary Elizabeth Williams

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It takes a special kind of singer to be able to belt out an opera, but Philadelphia-based soprano Mary Elizabeth Williams, thirty-three, feels she was built for it. “I’m six feet tall, I’m a big woman—I make a lot of sound.” The rising diva will be performing with the Atlanta Opera—which celebrates its thirtieth anniversary this season—in the title role of Verdi’s Aida at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre (February 27 and March 2, 5, and 7).

When did you start singing?

The church I grew up in is an inner-city church, right downtown in Philadelphia. My parents liked to sing in the choir, but there wasn’t a children’s choir that I could do at the same time. The choir director said, “Have her come along, and she’ll just sing in the church choir with you.” That worked out well. They made an exception. I think, in retrospect, the fact that I started in an adult choir at a young age was really good because I was expected to keep up, and I was given music that was really challenging to me. Maybe if I had been in a children’s choir, I would’ve gotten bored and wouldn’t have liked singing as much as I did.

What drew you to opera in particular?
One of the reasons I started performing opera, frankly, was because I liked the challenge of singing in other languages. I liked studying words in general. Plus, I’ve always been kinda loud so that was a natural positive for me in opera. The older I got, the more I realized—even as a teenager—that I was built for opera. I feel comfortable singing opera and I felt a connection to a lot of the composers.

Have you done any non-operatic roles?
I did a national tour of Showboat. While I was on that tour, I began to realize that I missed singing in foreign languages, missed the challenge of a singing repertoire that really demanded a lot of technical ability. Not that singing Broadway music wasn’t challenging; it was just challenging in a different way. I was more worried about my dance steps than about singing as perfectly as I could. The emphasis isn’t the same. I missed the emphasis in opera and in classical music in general, one really beautiful tone all the time. I enjoy that, so I started refining my understanding of what I wanted to do.

In this economy, is it harder to get people to go out to operas?
Opera is intimidating. I talk to friends who go to U2 or Madonna concerts, and they spend more money on one concert than [it costs to] buy an entire season worth of opera tickets. So it’s not really about the ticket prices. It’s about the fact that people are unfamiliar with opera and what opera can do for you. There’s this idea that opera is for a certain type of person—usually people that are moneyed and educated—and that even those people don’t necessarily enjoy it particularly. And I think it alienates a lot of other people. We don’t have a history in this country of going to opera as a way of entertainment.

What can you do to change that?
I try to make the emotional connection between the audience and the singer, and therefore the audience and the music, as clear and palpable as possible. I try to be as honest as I can when I’m interacting with the public or on the stage. I try to have as little artifice as possible in my performance. Part of it too is that so much of opera is story lines that happened a hundred or more years ago, or things that seem out of reach for today’s society. But our job as singers is to explain, by performing as best we can, that nothing has really changed in the last 200 years. The issues and the relationships we are portraying in opera are still relevant. People still do crazy things for love. And they still have emotional connections with their children and parents. That’s what opera is about. The thing is trying to convince people to take a risk and that they don’t have to understand every word in order to get something out of it.

What are the other misconceptions about opera?
I do my fair share of dating, and most of the time the men I date are shocked to find out that we have supertitles now. The supertitles have been going on for fifteen years or longer as a standard practice in most regional and all international houses. You’re going to have a translation above the stage of what’s going on at all times, but people don’t even know that, so they’re intimidated. They feel like they’re going to go there and not understand what’s going on. Or it’s going to be stuffy. My job is to be as open as possible, answer questions, and make them trust that it’s an open environment that they might actually enjoy, and that it’s worth taking a risk on. That’s a lifelong process. I don’t think there’s any magic pill we can take as opera singers to all of a sudden become palatable to the mass market. We just have to keep trying to do the best we can as performers. We need to be open and not try to protect ourselves. Because it’s hard being part of an art form that is ill understood, a lot of opera singers sort of put their dukes up all the time, preparing to defend the art form. I want to encourage dialogue and make people feel like they can talk to me, and that I’m just normal, not a diva or someone unapproachable.

Are your parents musical?
My parents were both amateur musicians. My father had a really beautiful bass voice and sang classical music. He sang in choirs, but he was a black man raised in North Carolina and was born in 1921, so there was really never any possibility that he could make a career as a singer. But he introduced me to all different kinds of music.

What did you listen to growing up?

We listened to classic jazz standards, big band, world music, classical music of all types, opera—but it’s not like we sat at home on Saturday nights and listened to that. I listened to top forty pop just like every other kid does, and I still listen to all different kinds of music.

What draws you to a role?
There are two factors that determine whether a role is appropriate for you. The first thing, and for me the most important thing, is your vocal color, the type of voice that you have. I’m a soprano, but one that has a lot of power in the middle and the bottom of my voice. Singers that have that tendency are called spinto sopranos and end up singing music that has big orchestras because our voices carry easily over a large sound coming from the pit. I have a tendency, because of my voice type, to sing a lot of Verdi, Puccini—romantic music that was written around the mid to late 1800s, early 1900s—because that was a period where operatic composers were really playing around with big sounds. If you don’t have a voice that has the characteristics of mine, you can end up hurting yourself trying to sing over an orchestra over and over again. That’s one reason why I end up singing Aida and Trovatore and all these operas I’m singing. The second reason you’re chosen for a role is that you have attributes, physical or otherwise, that connect you to a role. There are roles I could conceivably vocally sing but I will probably never be hired for because I don’t look enough like the part. Because I’m so tall and physically commanding, I probably would never play a twelve-year-old girl, even if vocally I could absolutely sing the part. As we, in the opera world, try to find ways to make ourselves relevant to modern audiences, we worry about that kind of stuff more and more. Maybe fifty years ago, nobody cared what you looked like. It was all about your sound. Now we want the sound but we also want it to look reasonable.

How did you get cast for Aida in Atlanta?
I’ve had a relationship with [Atlanta Opera General Director] Dennis Hanthorn for many years. When he was working in Milwaukee with the Florentine Opera, I was a student, studying with my voice teacher, and he hired me for one of my first roles on a main stage. Then when I was just coming back from [the young artist program at] the Opera National de Paris, he invited me to Atlanta for the first time to sing in Porgy and Bess. He has been instrumental in helping me in my career and has always been very supportive of me.

What were your impressions of Atlanta when you were here for Porgy and Bess?
I have great memories of Atlanta. I had a wonderful time singing Porgy and Bess. We had such a great time, and it was such a great group of people. I became very friendly with Marquita Lister, who was singing the role of Bess, and we were shopping buddies. We went to Lenox Square more times than I would care to admit. We had so much fun bonding over shopping and eating. We did a lot of eating. Oh my God, the food is so good down there and you have all different kinds, which I appreciate. I like that you can have Southern-style cooking, but you can also have fusion cuisine. You have good everything. And I liked the people. I remember having a great time with the chorus members in rehearsal. It was just a wonderful atmosphere, and I’m very excited to be able to come back.

This is your first time singing the role of Aida. What are you looking forward to?
I just know this role’s going to be a good fit. I’m really excited to work with the whole team there, especially the tenor singing the role of Radames, Antonello Palombi. We worked together for the first time in New Orleans a few months ago. We have good on-stage chemistry, and he’s fun to work with. Aida is one of those really over-the-top operas. It’s huge. Big chorus. Lots of brass in the orchestra. The whole stage filled to the brim with people and stuff. It’s a spectacle on many levels, and I’m excited to be part of that, because a lot of the roles I’ve done have been more intimate operas, and that’s beautiful. I like to be in intimate operas, but this is a change. Aida has intimate moments, but it also has such grand moments in the finales of each act.

What do you do to train before a show?
I work out on a regular basis, mostly cardio and some light weights. I’m less interested in being able to wear a bikini and more interested in just being healthy and being able to stand the rigors of singing for three hours. It can be rather athletic, especially when you’re wearing a thirty-five-pound costume. In Tosca, I have to throw myself off the back of the set because I commit suicide at the end. When I first started singing three years ago, I was not in as good shape as I am now. After the first week of rehearsals, my legs hurt, my back hurt, my shoulders hurt from the stress of being thrown around the stage and walking up and down flights of stairs over and over again and singing from my knees on the floor. I decided then that I really needed to take better care of my body. Keeping mentally healthy is also very important. I sing a lot of tragic parts so I try to keep the tragedy on the stage and live a very drama-free life at home. Being a performer is rigorous, not just on your body but on your mind, on your soul, on everything, because you have to give it all. You can’t just phone it in. Ever.

What about keeping your voice in shape?
I have a very close relationship with my voice teacher. I try to see her as often as I get a haircut, so every six weeks or so. I also see her absolutely every time I do a role for the first time, so she’s coming to support me in Atlanta. She’ll hear me in the hall, in the last rehearsals just to make sure everything’s going well. She has been a huge part of my staying vocally healthy because when she starts to hear something that maybe isn’t dangerous now, but would be dangerous if I did it like that for three years, she’ll let me know. She also helps me to always sing economically, so I’m getting the most bang for my effort, and that’s very helpful.

Can opera singers really break glasses with their voices?
If you get the good quality crystal and have a certain kind of voice, absolutely. I have never done it. I hope I never do, because it won’t be on purpose, [and that would] be just really embarrassing. Besides, I would rather drink wine out of the glass than break it.

What’s been your most embarrassing on-stage moment?

I was singing Don Elvira in Don Giovanni, and during Leporello’s aria, it was just Leporello and me on the stage. He’s telling me that Don Giovanni’s a bad guy because he sleeps with everybody. He shows me this black book with the names of all the women. I’m supposed to be horrified, and I’m reacting as he’s singing. I was walking around the stage and I feel something shift underneath my skirt. I don’t know what it is, and I can’t look down because I’m trying to stay in character. Then all of a sudden in the front row, I hear someone gasp, so finally I look down and my petticoat had come unfastened and fallen around my ankles. It was black but the skirt was kind of tan, so it was obvious that something was awry. So here I was in the middle of this man’s poor aria, trying to figure out what to do, so I began to act as if my character thought that Leporello had somehow begun to take her clothes off. I just stepped out of the skirt, picked it up, put it over my shoulder, and harrumphed off the stage, like “How dare you do that!” Afterwards, people said, “I thought that was part of the show.” I guess I don’t embarrass easily. I make mistakes all the time on stage, but you just keep it moving. I can’t worry about it, and I have to trust that people will give me a little slack if I make a mistake now and then.

What’s the best costume you’ve gotten to wear?
In France and Belgium, I did a tour of the Marriage of Figaro, playing the role of the Countess, and I had this fantastic costume. It was from that period where, instead of the bustle going out the back, it went out the side. I was as wide as an eighteen-wheeler. It was ridiculous. But it was beautiful and hand-done for me with a built-in corset that was hand-boned for me. Gorgeous! I mean, honestly, the costumes of this career—I love it. Mostly, I just like looking pretty. I’ve done quite a few Toscas now, and there’s a traditional sort of costume that comes with Tosca that requires a tiara, which I love. When are you going to be able to wear a tiara at home and not get laughed at? She’s also usually in red or burgundy velvet and has fabulous jewelry. In most of the roles, I get to look pretty nice. I don’t know what they’re going to do with Aida. She’s a slave girl, so I keep telling my trainer that I need to have my arms look good enough that if they have me in, like, sack-cloth, it’ll be okay.

Photograph by Susan Beard

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