Interviews Stage Spotlight

Making a Big Return – Elizabeth DeShong on ‘Semiramide,’ Riccardo Muti & Future Repertoire

At the start of Rossini’s “Semiramide,” Arsace returns to Babylon after a long time away.

For years, Elizabeth DeShong has been a fixture at the Metropolitan Opera singing in such operas as “La Rondine,” “Aida,” “The Enchanted Island,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “Madama Butterfly,” and “Lulu.”

Then after the 2015-16 season, she did not return until now to take on the role of Arsace in Rossini’s “Semiramide” alongside Angela Meade, Javier Camarena, Ildar Abdrazakov, and Ryan Speedo Green. The production is set to be conducted by Maurizio Benini. The mezzo recently spoke to OperaWire about her experience in interpreting the role as well as her upcoming projects.

No Stranger

DeShong is no stranger to Rossini’s music having interpreted the likes of Rosina in “Il Barbiere di Siviglia” and Angelina in “La Cenerentola” before coming to the role of Arsace in “Semiramide” back in 2016 in Bordeaux. So one would not be surprised to hear that the mezzo feels right at home with the music by the man from Pesaro.

“Rossini’s music has always come very naturally to me. Either as a result of my piano background or the vocal mechanism I was born with, singing florid music has not been a particular challenge,” she explained.

However, unlike other Rossini roles like Rosina or Angelina, Arsace does offer up a unique vocal challenge – length. “Semiramide” is an opera that, per the Met Opera’s official website, features over three hours of music.

“‘Semiramide’ is not a brief musical drama. The story is told rather slowly and then resolved somewhat rapidly,” she noted. “The bulk of the storytelling happens very concisely in moments of recitative. The key to this piece is making sure that the clarity of intention comes through in the pacing and coloring of the text. The interactions between the characters are primarily emotional and presentational, which generally calls for less physical activity to tell the story. It is an epic musical journey that we as a cast have to take together.”

A Sense of Integrity

In interpreting the character, she has honed in on his sense of loyalty and honor. In fact, she believes that he is defined by these very traits.

“He has grown up believing one reality and shortly finds out that that reality is false. He is a confident warrior and a man who is true to those he loves and serves,” she added. “He finds himself torn between love (romantic and familial), duty, and fate. He must accept the things that are out of his control and become the leader that he was born to be.”

Many singers often find ways to connect their personal traits to that of the character they are interpreting. While DeShong doesn’t have to live with the fact that her mother murdered her father, she does find common ground in the loyalty of Arsace.

“My integrity is something I value first and foremost, before career and image,” she emphasized. “The person behind the artistry is so important, and the more we can do to nurture a sense of wholeness outside of the theater, the more capable, I think, we are of putting ourselves aside in service of the characters and music that we are charged with bringing to life. Arsace honors his loyalties and still carries on in the face of difficult circumstances.”

Meeting a Maestro

While “Semiramide” is very much at the top of her mind, DeShong is also pumped for other major collaborations on the horizon. Immediately following her performances as Arsace, she heads over to Chicago to perform Schubert’s “Mass in E-Flat Major” and the world premiere of Raimi’s “Three Lisel Mueller Settings.” It will be the first time she works with the organization and maestro Riccardo Muti.

“What initially interests me most when working with someone new, especially a revered conductor, is how they inspire others. Maestro Muti, from my personal observations and the comments of my colleagues, has this ability in abundance,” she noted. “My best experiences on stage have been with conductors who are in love with the music and find a natural and truthful way to inspire that same feeling and passion in others. It is an honor to be able to premiere a new work under the baton of someone so committed to music making at the highest level.”

She is also pondering what the future might include interms of repertory additions. DeShong noted that she will be singing “more Handel, Rossini, Bellini, a little bit of Mozart, the occasional Puccini” and noted that her wish list includes concert versions of “Carmen” and “Samson et “Dalila.”

“Britten’s ‘The Rape of Lucretia’ has long been on my list, as well as, Charlotte in Massenet’s ‘Werther,'” she added. “There are a lot of roles that I will add to my repertoire in, say, 5-10 years. I will absolutely sing Erda, Amneris, Azucena, Eboli… These roles are perfectly singable now, but, in the interest of vocal longevity, I am content to take the slow road.”

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