Opens Saturday, runs through May 26
Washington National Opera
Kennedy Center Opera House
(2700 F Street, NW)
D.C.-area native Alyson Cambridge starts a triumphant homecoming this weekend.
The former Arlington, Va., resident — she grew up here — has made a splash in the opera world with debuts at the Metropolitan Opera and other top-level houses in major productions. She opens Saturday in the classic musical “Show Boat,” the Kern/Hammerstein masterpiece that will feature more than 100 singers, actors and dancers on the Kennedy Center Opera House Stage to tell the story of a troupe of riverboat performers as they make their way through the decades. It features classic songs such as “Ol’ Man River” and “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man.”
Cambridge stars as Julie. It will be a busy month for the performer. She’ll also sing the National Anthem at the Washington Nationals game on May 11. And on May 18, the production will be broadcast live to Nationals Park for WNO’s annual “Opera in the Outfield” event. Cambridge opened the show in Chicago last year and says during a lengthy phone chat from her home in Manhattan, she’s excited about bringing it to D.C. (Cambridge’s comments have been edited for length.)
BLADE: You still have family here?
CAMBRIDGE: Yes, my parents still live in the same house I grew up in and my brother and sister-in-law live in Falls Church with my niece who’s 1 so yeah, it’s been great spending time with my niece.
BLADE: How is the art/theater/music vibe different in New York versus Washington?
CAMBRIDGE: New York is a completely different world. I’ve been there almost 11 years so it feels like home now and I’m used to a fast-paced life where I’m constantly being surrounded by artists, singers, actors and dancers all the time. The person behind the counter at Starbucks is an aspiring acturess. It’s just in the culture that there’s this assumption that you have some ties to the arts. You just feel that vibe all the time here.
BLADE: How was the Chicago run?
CAMBRIDGE: Really wonderful. It was the first time for many of us coming to this show .. and my first time doing a musical like this on such a grand scale. About half the cast is new for D.C. and it’s been wonderful welcoming so many newcomers to this production. I can truly say, there’s not a weak link in the cast, everybody is just so strong. … I hope D.C. embraces the show as much as Chicago did. We were completely sold out there and it was the toughest ticket in town to get.
BLADE: Most of your professional work has been in opera. Are the lines blurring between the opera world and musical theater and if so, is that a good thing?
CAMBRIDGE: I’ve seen a lot of change just within the last four years or so. I did “Porgy & Bess” in Washington in 2005 and came back in 2010 and the reception was very different. It’s considered a show in the more operatic vein and was really written for classically trained voices. Even just a few years ago, people warned me, ‘Oh, be careful — if you start with that, people won’t see you as a truly legit opera singer,’ but I think what we’re doing is really opening up these musical worlds to different audiences and I think it’s the perfect blend.
BLADE: Whatever raw talent you were blest with, as you discovered it and what your strengths were, did that line up pretty naturally with your musical interests as a teen or did you have to learn to appreciate opera, which can be an acquired taste?
CAMBRIDGE: Oh, back in the ‘90s I listened to pop singers and wanted to be a pop singer. I’d be blasting Christina Aguilera out of my car on campus but I discovered I could imitate any voice I heard and had a really finely tuned ear. My mom would have classical music on and I could imitate the opera singers and we had a neighbor say once, ‘You know, that’s not half bad.’ … This led to voice lessons … where I was eventually told I had natural ability in this genre. But yes, it took awhile for me to really embrace what my voice was meant to do. But yeah, Madonna, Whitney Houston, Tiffany, I loved all that too and even went through a rap phase.
BLADE: Does it feel really competitive and cut throat as your career unfolds or is there a level you get to where you don’t feel like the next soprano is just waiting in the wings snapping at your heels?
CAMBRIDGE: I think everybody has their own unique path. Mine was pretty fast. I literally went from Curtis to the Metropolitan Opera’s young artist program by the time I was 23 and had my Met debut at 24, but I have certainly leanred you’re always a work in progress and I think it’s a misconception that you don’t have to keep learning. … It’s very much about always coming out and bringing your A game.
BLADE: What is your tessitura?
CAMBRIDGE: I’m a full lyric soprano.
BLADE: Is that the highest one? I can never remember.
CAMBRIDGE: No, a coloratura is the highest and the lightest … It’s a fuller sound with more meat to it. … The role of Julie, is really a mezzo role. It’s quite low but it suits me quite well.
BLADE: Do you have a gay best friend in New York? Your world must be teeming with gay energy.
CAMBRIDGE: It’s all over the map. I’m surrounded by gay people, trans people, bi — everything. It’s really all across the map. But yeah, I’m going to the wedding of one of my college best friends this summer in New York. She was straight all through college but she’s marrying a woman and she’s never been happier.