This year, for the 2014/2015 season, the Canadian Opera Company is doing things a little differently. Instead of the usual offering of seven operas, they’ve combined two into one (Bluebeard’s Castle/Erwartung), giving opera-goers six productions to choose from. But of those six, two very strong productions are set to open the season: Verdi’s “Falstaff”, which runs from October 3 to November 1, and Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly”, running from October 10 to the 31st. One singer from each opera sat down for an interview — Marie-Nicole Lemieux, who sings the role of Quickly in “Falstaff”, and Elizabeth DeShong, who, as Suzuki, is the only non-double casted singer in all 12 performances of “Madama Butterfly” — to share their thoughts on their respective careers and characters.
The two women could not be more different: Lemieux is bubbly and outgoing, and punctuates her speech with smiles and laughs, while DeShong is much more introspective, evident in the photojournal blog she maintains. “I think it comes back to the observer element, you know? ” she says. “Just taking time to kind of be still and see things, see little things, and I just found in my journeys that like there’s so much you get to see and do in this career because you’re on the road, you know. For me, just this year alone, I’m at my actual place of residence (Akron, Ohio), five weeks total.”
Although DeShong is living the life of a nomad right now, Toronto is no strange town for her. “This is my third time back,” she explains. “I had been here for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” as Hermia, “La Cenerentola” as the title character, Cinderella, and now this.” She’ll be singing the role of Suzuki, the maid to Cio-Cio San (Butterfly). It’s a role that reflects DeShong’s personality, as both of them need to be quiet observers who are able to be rocks when needed. “I draw on things that are within me for the character,” she says. “I think Suzuki is an observer; she’s someone that takes in what’s around her before asserting herself in a situation, and I think I can be a little that way. I’m a little more observational before I join in and jump in and make my presence known.”
But the role also fits DeShong because of her voice: as an opera singer, she initially trained as a contralto, but discovered along the way that she also had the vocal chops necessary to be a mezzo-soprano. The latter is something she’s working hard to re-establish herself in, as she feels her voice is better suited for it. “If I was being absolutely specific, I am probably a dramatic coloratura contralto, but it’s easier, and takes up less space, to say, on a website, I suppose, to say that I’m a mezzo-soprano,” she laughs. “And I am, based on range and, you know, comfort in my upper register. I’m comfortable through a high C — and a little bit higher — although I don’t plan to use those on a stage right now.”
DeShong’s goal for herself is to sing as long as she possibly can, which, in some ways, is also Lemieux’s goal, too. But where DeShong talks deeply about her character’s personality and how it contrasts with her own, Lemieux becomes animated when talking about the music. At one point, she pulled out the score and pointed out all the different instructions Verdi had written in and excitedly demonstrated some of her more memorable passages. “Piano, a bassa voce, this means, you speak like that,” she whispers. “…Sotta voce — it means like that (she whispers beckoningly). Sometimes it’s con tutta forte — with all the voice.” As Lemieux rifles through the pages of her score, she points out different passages and how she’s immersed herself in her role as Quickly.
Verdi had made many changes when he initially wrote “Falstaff”, and Lemieux chalks it up to him having different singers to work with. She’s rejoining conductor Johannes Debus for this production, a conductor she deeply respects and enjoys working with again. “He’s quite respectful of the music,” she says. “…Of course, you have to respect [the music but] you always have this space to put your personality.”
Though she’s worked with Debus before, she’s seeing new faces with this cast of “Falstaff” but has nothing but positive accolades for them. “It’s really a great team, I have to say,” she enthuses. Lemieux also really enjoys her role, particularly at the beginning of the opera. “Everything is easy, you know? We are [the] new rich…but nothing is really serious…We’re having fun because nothing happened.”
Lemieux also has a piece of advice for those on the edge about seeing “Falstaff” or not. “There’s so many things to enjoy in this opera,” she stresses. “And I always say this is not an opera you will go listen on a CD because there will be no meaning. You have to be in the hall, you have to be in the audience.”
You can be in the hall to listen to both DeShong and Lemieux when “Madama Butterfly” and “Falstaff”, respectively, kick off the 2014/205 Canadian Opera Company season soon. “Falstaff” is the first to open on October 3, while “Madama Butterfly” picks up exactly one week later on October 10.
Fore more information on “Falstaff” and “Madama Butterfly”, as well as the other operas in the Canadian Opera Company’s season, visit their website for more details.