Talking with singers: Elizabeth DeShong
Why do you sing?
I’ll borrow the words of Georgia O’Keeffe, and say, “Singing has always seemed to me the most perfect means of expression...”. I began studying music, as a pianist. While I loved, and still love, playing the piano, it became very clear to me that I needed to be my own instrument. I wanted to express myself with notes, words, and my entire being. On stage, I can be anyone... I can scream, cry, laugh, change gender, die, love... The limits of everyday life are removed. I’ll have lived many lives when my career as a singer ends.
Who is Suzuki?
Suzuki is love personified. When the whole world turns against Butterfly, Suzuki stays by her side. She takes what is good and nurtures it, she tempers a new, harsh reality with normalcy, and she pleads for privacy when tragedy is just around the corner. Her devotion isn’t a financial arrangement, it doesn’t make sense, it will cause her pain, and yet, she wouldn’t have it any other way. She knowingly accepts vulnerability. It is easy to focus on romantic love and it’s joys and sorrows, but the real love that is so hard to find and give, is consistently present throughout the opera in Suzuki.
Suzuki spends much time onstage listening and reacting to the other characters. What's dramatically challenging about this?
All of Act 1 is about giving and receiving energy and intention, for Suzuki. You have to build a connection to Butterfly, establish your place in the household, project your understanding of the story that is unfolding, and all of this has to be accomplished without the aid of sung text. As you perform a role more and more, the challenge that you have to keep ever-present in your mind, is to always hear everything for the first time. You have to remind yourself at the top of each show that you don’t know what is about to happen. That simple, little reminder helps to keep all of the interactions fresh.
Why do you think Madama Butterfly is such a staple in the operatic canon?
I think people are drawn to extremes. We go to the theater to see life ‘elevated’. Madama Butterfly takes feelings that we are all familiar with, like love, loss, friendship, betrayal, etc., unites them with a lush orchestral undercurrent, and takes us on an emotional roller coaster ride unlike any other.
What kind of relationship do you have with roles you’ve done more than once (Suzuki, Rosina, Hänsel, Cenerentola)?
There are pros and cons to being “comfortable” in a role. Certainly, you gain a more thorough understanding of your character and the music through repetition, but you have to be careful to keep your choices fresh and not just recycle ideas that have worked in the past. The other fun thing that happens is that, I find, the characters kind of live on and grow along side of me as I learn and gain experience in my everyday life. When the time comes to sing one of these characters again, that learning shows itself in new vocal colors or character reactions.
What roles would you love to sing (realistically or not)?
At this point, I think I’m ready to give Cio-Cio San a try! I’m only half kidding. Realistically, I’m keen to sing Lucretia in Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia, as well as, Dalila in Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila.
If you didn’t sing, what else would you do?
I’ve been on this path since I was a teenager, so it is hard to picture my life any other way. That said, if I completely changed course, I think I might like to own an antique store. Seeking out little oddities from the past is a hobby of mine.