Q & A: Soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn On Her Career Path & Upcoming Metropolitan Opera Debut In ‘Porgy And Bess’By Nicole Kuchta
(Credit: Shirley Suarez)
British soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn is currently preparing for a career milestone: her Metropolitan Opera debut, in James Robinson’s new production of “Porgy and Bess.” She will take to the stage for the Oct. 13, 2019 performance, opposite Eric Owens.
An increasingly sought-after specialist in the Italian repertoire, a few of her recent roles include the title roles of “Manon Lescaut” and “Tosca,” Cio-Cio-San in “Madama Butterfly,” Magda de Civry in “La Rondine,” and Margherita / Elena in “Mefistofele.” In 2013, she garnered a nomination for “Singer of the Year” from Opernwelt for her portrayal of Amelia in “Simon Boccanegra.”
Llewellyn took some time amidst her hectic schedule to chat with OperaWire about her career path and exciting Met debut.
OperaWire: How did you first come to appreciate and enjoy opera? Do you come from a musical family?
Elizabeth Llewellyn: I come from a family who enjoys music in all its forms, although none of them are musicians in an amateur or professional capacity. My parents were both in choirs when they lived in Jamaica and had very attractive voices – Dad was a high baritone and Mum was a soprano.
My introduction to opera was via a very roundabout route. I was a talented pianist as a child, and both my school and parents encouraged me to learn to play the violin and be involved in the school orchestra and choirs. My head teacher paid for singing lessons for me when I was sixteen, and she gave me a small bursary to go to as many classical concerts as I could. The first live performance of an opera I saw was of “Die Zauberflöte” at the Proms in the Royal Albert Hall in London. I can’t say that I was enraptured by it, and even when I eventually went to music college as a singer, I don’t think I had any realistic idea of what opera was, just that I wanted to sing.
OW: You’ve had a bit of an unusual career path. As a young singer, you experienced a vocal crisis and had to quit singing for nearly a decade. What inspired you to overcome your obstacles and pursue a career in opera?
EL: Short answer: nothing! I was extremely happy leading a normal life, which gave me a credible career (first in recruitment in the IT/telecoms industry, then in the travel industry), an opportunity to buy an apartment in London, and to have paid holidays, so I had no obstacles to overcome – sorry the story isn’t more heroic! When I eventually came back to singing, I found that the old problems had gone, and that others who knew more about the opera industry than I did (various conductors and voice teachers) thought I had something worth developing. I would say that these people inspired me at those times when I felt like there was no place for me in the industry, and that it would be easier to give up. The tough part was knowing when it was right to “give up the day job,” and to keep assessing in the early days if it all was still worth pursuing, but my operatic career took off almost immediately.
OW: You are known for taking on the roles of Puccini’s great heroines. What draws you to these characters, and/or his music? Is there one role that is especially meaningful to you?
EL: Would you believe me if I told you that my relationship with Puccini roles has been more accidental than by design? I had only sung Mozart by the time I made my operatic debut as Mimi in “La Bohème” back in 2010! That said, having just sung my seventh Puccini role, I can say that he writes for women extraordinarily well. What I mean by that is that he understands that women think and feel much more than they will ever say, much of it quite layered and complex. Puccini’s genius for orchestration which is rather cinematic gives his characters’ inner lives a scope, luminosity, and depth which is both exciting and devastating.
The role which has had the most profound effect on me was “Madama Butterfly,” for two reasons. Firstly, the Act III Intermezzo is heart-breaking, especially after the emotional roller-coaster ride of Act II which ends with almost too much hope, and one can hear the hope ebbing away by the end of the Intermezzo. Secondly, I came to a realization of what lengths parents will go to in order to ensure a better life for their children. Growing up, I was aware of the personal sacrifices my parents (who emigrated from Jamaica in the West Indies to the UK) made for us three children, because they wanted us to have more opportunities and to thrive; the teenage Cio-Cio-San understands very quickly that the only way for her son to thrive is for her to be out of the picture entirely, so that his life is before him in America.
OW: This fall you will make your Metropolitan Opera debut in Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess.” What excites you about taking part in this production?
EL: “Porgy and Bess” is probably the most American of operas, and it is held with great affection and esteem in the hearts of American musicians. As a British singer, to be invited to sing one of the title roles at the Met is an enormous honor – to be singing it alongside such esteemed colleagues as Eric Owens, Latonia Moore, Denyce Graves, and other wonderful singers is incredibly exciting for me.
OW: Having previously sung the role of Bess with Seattle Opera, could you give us some insight as to how you interpret her character? Do you relate to her in any way?
EL: Actually, I first sang this role five years ago for the Royal Danish Opera in Copenhagen, Denmark, so this will be my third outing for Bess. Although there is a clear footprint for the opera in terms of the time and place, I try not to come to the role of Bess with any preconceived ideas as to how I will play her – that is a sure-fire way of killing any life, creativity, or spontaneity in a role! Much depends upon how the production is staged, and what my colleagues bring to their roles – this is, after all, a story about a community. I am re-reading DuBose Heyward’s novel “Porgy” to reacquaint myself with her original incarnation (which is quite different from the Bess we encounter in the opera!), and I am fascinated to see in rehearsals how James Robinson directs my role within the story.
Bess is a high-functioning addict who makes some bad choices in life, but who has a firm grasp on her reality and a huge capacity for love. I would say that I am nothing like the first half of that statement and everything like the second half!
OW: You most frequently perform roles from the Italian repertoire. Have you had to make any adjustments in preparation for this opera?
EL: Your question is one about style. One of the reasons singers are asked to bring contrasting arias to an audition, for example, is because casting directors want to see if we can adjust our singing style to suit the composer – so we should not sing Puccini like Handel, or Verdi like Strauss, etc. The same applies here: Gershwin has a particular style, but “Porgy and Bess” is still a grand opera in scale, and we are required to use our vocal technique to deal with the demands of it, along with good judgment and taste to know when certain parts of the music need to take on more of a jazz/gospel idiom here, or lighten off there.
OW: What are some of your goals for the future?
EL: To get through the rest of this season unscathed! 2019-20 is a big “title role” season for me, which began with Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut,” and continues after the Met with Verdi’s “Aida” in Germany, and his “Luisa Miller” in London. I am also planning a recording of songs by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor in May 2020 with the wonderful pianist Simon Lepper, and we hope to give some recitals on the back of that both in the U.S. and U.K.
Further afield, I would love to sing some R. Strauss – like Arabella or Die Marschallin – as I think his writing suits my voice, and definitely more Verdi and Mozart.
OW: Do you have any words of wisdom that you’d like to share with passionate young singers?
EL: Keep your passion! And feed it daily by reading or going to art galleries or museums, or learning a new language, or improving your vocal technique. Alongside your passion and your dream-roles for the future, be realistic about what you can sing really well now and present those things in auditions. If a casting director is any good, they will hear in your voice that you are a future Tosca or whomever.
Even if your path does not ultimately lead to a full-time career as a professional singer, the opera industry needs passionate audiences/patrons, passionate creatives, passionate technicians . . . and it starts with you!