Q & A: Soprano Mary Elizabeth Williams on Her Controversial Isolde at Opéra National de Paris

By João Marcos Copertino

It has not been the easiest time for soprano Mary Elizabeth Williams. Her debut at Paris Opera has been, to say the least, controversial. On the one hand, she is pushing for redefinitions of what art is and how we should face the standard operatic repertoire. On the other hand, the audience’s reaction has been, in her own words, “passionate.” Her Isolde has been applauded but also criticized and even heckled. Hers is a different approach to the role than listeners are acclimated to.

“Maybe in five years, they will applaud me,” she says.

During her run as Isolde, I had the privilege of conversing with Williams and asking her about the importance of her being in Paris and, more importantly, about how she is processing her Wagnerian moments in Paris. Williams was extremely gracious and shared another reason that Paris is such a central space in her affective life; her late father was perhaps the main reason she came to the city.

OperaWire: One thing that caught my attention is that you studied English Literature. How does that shape your approach to memorizing a role?

Mary Elizabeth Williams: In the English language, we say that there is more than one way to skin a cat. And it is true that there are many ways to learn an opera, but I go absolutely by the text first. The libretto, of course—but also the legends, the books, and the various versions of the legend. I think all of that is really helpful. That is my way into the character. And that is also my way into the music and into understanding why Wagner or Verdi wrote the way they did.

OW: Isolde has been your first Wagnerian role, and you sang this season in Seattle and Paris, both gigantic rooms. How does this experience happen between the space and the voice?

MEW: I am still experimenting with this hall [Bastille]. When I was a young artist, I did not sing in Bastille; I sang in Garnier. Maestro (Gustavo Dudamel) wants [“Tristan und Isolde”] to be full of parlando as much as possible. In the score, there are a lot of piano and mezzo-piano markings, but we have to be respectful of the space here. The risk-taking is good, and it is getting better with every performance. To sing with quiet expression—and for this expression to be heard—is my goal.

OW: You have been deemed a non-traditional Isolde. How do you deal with that?

MEW: I am not a traditional Isolde, but I am not a traditional anything, really. None of us are traditional anything, because we singers come to a role with the bodies that we have, with our individual voices and our own points of view.

So I really try, in all roles, not only Isolde, to come up with a fresh and independent take on the text. To look at what he or she—most of the times it is a he—wrote and how they wrote it, and try to convey that as beautifully as possible…people want to hear pretty things! And also, I want to create a character that makes sense.

It is very interesting to me that some people here have been very passionate in their responses—both positive and negative—and I take that to heart. I completely respect it. As an artist, I salute the audience. I am doing it for everybody. This is my version today. This is what I have to give, and I give what I have with all my heart every time. This—like every role I sing—is a work in progress.

OW: Paris Opera has their issues with casting this season; however, most singers were accepted by the audience—and applauded. Why do you think the reaction to your singing has been so negative?

MEW: I cannot speak for them [the few that decided to boo]. Unfortunately, we can’t have a dialogue. And I hesitate to answer that question because I do not want to impose or assume [anything.] I can tell you how I live with the negative response because it is, of course, very painful. But then I say to myself: they are at least passionate…and they are staying until the end!

In America, the big joke is, “you’ve made it if they actually stay until the end of the second act.” Here they are staying for all three acts!

I think I am just really different. And I think there are a lot of things in this passionate reaction that can start conversations about opera as a whole—conversations that need to be had. For example: what is the artist’s responsibility, ultimately? Are we responsible for maintaining a status quo? Are administrators responsible for hiring people based on preconceived notions about who is the appropriate singer for a specific role? Or are we supposed to live life and make art through our bodies in the ways that we know how?

This controversy around my singing Isolde could also contribute to very important debates about the relationship between artists and their audiences. I agree that polite acceptance of something is not helpful. When “Tristan und Isolde” premiered, there was a lot of push-back. When “The Marriage of Figaro” premiered, there was a lot of push-back, too. These are just two examples. Art is very often controversial!

Of course, it would be nice to live in controversy with more respect…but I hear them, and I accept I am not what some people expect as an Isolde here in Paris. But I also hear from the audience response that a lot of people are very happy with what I have to offer in this role. That is the nature of art.

Are we, as performers, expected to weigh ourselves down and do again what has already been done—and is, therefore, a stale imitation of a past performance?

Is that perhaps why “Don Carlos” [at the Met this season] did not have a huge audience, but they came in droves for “The Hours?” Perhaps “The Hours” had an advantage because there was no preconceived conception of what the opera should be.

No matter the repertoire, we must preserve the idea that things are going to be different in each performance.

OW: How does it feel personally?

MEW: It is not fun to be the test case for this conversation, but these conversations have to happen. I love opera. And if I am the test case, so be it. […] I recognize I am a relative unknown here in Paris. Even though I studied here, I haven’t sung here, and I definitely have never sung any Wagner here because I just started singing Wagner. But I am sure that some members of the audience could think: who does this woman think she is? She comes here to this important theater; she has never sung here; she is singing Wagner, and to top it off, she dares to sing it in a way that is different than what people are anticipating! I get it.

But, as I said, I’ve also been receiving a lot of positive feedback…especially from people who have never been to a Wagner opera or who didn’t like the Wagner they have seen. So, for some people, my take on Isolde is a breath of fresh air. So, how do we reconcile the needs of the seasoned audience with those of the newcomers? We have to find ways to include new voices in opera and new ideas about repertoire without alienating the audiences which have been supporting this art form for decades while also including new people, new ideas, and new understandings of what beauty is. We need to find a way to have it be okay, even if we do not always agree. It is the only way to go forward.

OW: Although this is your Paris Opera debut, you were a student in the Paris Opera Atelier program. How was this first Paris experience?

MEW: The reason that I ended up coming to France was my father. My father was 56 when I was born. He fought in the Second World War here in France. He was a Black man from the South, and he came here [to Paris.] He was very linguistically talented, and he spoke French and learned enough German and Italian to be an unofficial translator—of course, he was Black, so he couldn’t work as an official translator at that time. He ended up working for a lower general, which saved his life. He was protected from the most terrible fighting because he spoke French. He loved his time here, and he thought, as a Black American, that he was treated [in Paris] with a respect that he didn’t find in America at that time. He said to me—he died when I was 23—that the best place for Black people in Europe is France. If you have any problems, go to France. About a year after my father died, I was having problems getting into young artists’ programs in America because I was big and loud and did not know what to do with my voice yet. I was not really useful. Young artists’ programs in America want singers that can do small roles and be “plugged in” to help out in many ways. I was not someone who could be plugged in. Now I understand that, but at the time, it was very difficult. Then I heard my father’s voice, literally, saying to me, “Go to France.” This was back in the early internet days, before Google. And I looked up “Paris Opera young artists,” and luckily, they had a young artists’ school. I was in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in my kitchen, and I decided I was going to apply. I came here to audition, not knowing anybody or really anything about the school. The program took me on; they were quite clear that I wasn’t really ready to “do” anything for them, but they acknowledged my talent and wanted to help me. Literally, they just paid me to study. I did not sing anything for them beyond the occasional concert in Opera Garnier. I was no use to them at all; I was 24 or 25, […] and it was the most formative time of my life. I was—and am—very grateful to them. My father was right. When you are having problems and don’t know where to go, come to France. Come even when you are not having problems!

OW: Currently, there are more contemporary opera titles than there were ten or twenty years ago. Do you feel yourself getting into new music repertoire?

MEW: At the beginning of my career, I did sing contemporary opera. I did “Amistad,” “Porgy and Bess,” and “Margaret Garner.” I think I did all that in one year. “Amistad” is a story of a slave ship rebellion, and “Margaret Garner” is about an enslaved woman that killed her two children in order that they not be enslaved. I began to understand that the modern operas for people that look like me are often very depressing and emotionally taxing. We end up telling stories that revolve around our oppression and mistreatment.

I encourage modern opera composers writing today to allow all of us, no matter our color or background, to tell stories that are universal, regardless of how we look or where we come from—like I am doing now, actually! In many ways, one of the things I love about “Tristan und Isolde” is that it is a completely relatable story and could happen anywhere. What matters is the relationships are clear between the characters. There is a lot of artistic freedom and joy in telling a story like this one.


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