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Interviews: Elizabeth Bishop and Russell Thomas on ‘Das Lied’

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Last week’s concert series with New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (NJSO) featured a new work by Chinese composer Tan Dun, his “Earth Concerto,” inspired by the work that occupied the concert program’s second half, namely, Gustav Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde” (The Song of the Earth). Before Saturday’s performance, January 18, 2014, mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Bishop and tenor Russell Thomas spoke to Examiner.com about their respective careers and about the challenges and joys of singing Mahler’s colossal symphony for tenor, alto and symphony orchestra, an hour-long work comprised of a series of six orchestral songs that alternate between tenor and mezzo-soprano.

Elizabeth Bishop, a native of South Carolina who now lives outside Washington, D.C., will soon appear at the Metropolitan Opera in a pair of operas by Vincenzo Bellini, first as Teresa in “La Sonnambula” (The Sleepwalker) and as Enrichetta in “I Puritani di Scozia” (The Puritans of Scotland). The mezzo-soprano can sing either Sieglinde or Fricka in Richard Wagner’s “Die Walküre” (The Valkyries). Regarding such versatility she says, “Some audience members prefer a higher soprano as Sieglinde, and some prefer a lower mezzo-soprano as Fricka, but both roles are a good fit for me.” She doesn’t ever see herself portraying Bellini’s “Norma” or Georg Frideric Händel’s “Alcina”—both of which were recently recorded by mezzo-sopranos Cecilia Bartoli and Joyce DiDonato, respectively. Until then both roles seemed to be exclusively the province of sopranos. “I find that the Italian soprano roles are out of my reach. The German soprano roles are not.”

Formative years. In 1993, Elizabeth Bishop was a winner of the Metropolitan Opera’s National Council Auditions. Though not taken up by the Met’s young artists program, she went to San Francisco. As an Adler alumna, she says, their program was “the right thing at the right time. It made me very independent as a singer. I got out there. I overdid it. I got sick. I sang on it. I completely trashed my voice. I had to stop singing for a few weeks. Then I literally note-by-note had to rebuild my voice. It made me bold and strong enough to ask the visiting artists—the Thomas Hampsons and the Judith Forsts—who were never too busy to help a young artist: ‘I need help from you on this or that’.”

Who helped Elizabeth Bishop cultivate her talent? “I had an absolutely wonderful teacher, Marlena Malas, who was perfect for me. Had I stayed in New York, I would have been right under her wing and I would never have left the nest. It was more than just singing. I needed to go away from home. I might have been wildly successful in New York, but I wouldn’t be who I am. I’m kind of happy with who I am.”

A Miami native, Russell Thomas now lives in Atlanta and soon returns to NJSO with Giuseppe Verdi’s “Requiem.” First, though, he will appear at the Met as Andres in Alban Berg’s “Wozzeck.” An alumnus of the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program at the Metropolitan Opera, the program “was instrumental in my meeting director Peter Sellars, who introduced me to John Adams and Louis Langrée. Louis Langrée invited me to the Mostly Mozart Festival in New York, and Peter Sellars invited me to Vienna, which is what launched my international career.”

The challenges of singing Mahler’s “Das Lied.” Speaking of the orchestral song titled “Von der Schönheit” (Of Beauty), Elizabeth Bishop says: “In the middle of the piece, there’s a very fast, chirpy ‘galloping horse’ part. It’s like riding a bull. I just want to stay on the bull for eight seconds and not fall off.”

Russell Thomas opines: “The most challenging aspect of ‘Das Lied’ is trying to make the numbers for tenor sound and feel as artistic as possible. The tenor has these three loud bombastic numbers, and then each time along comes the mezzo-soprano and sings these long beautiful lyrical lines. So it can sound like one of us is always screaming.” To reach the high notes in the first orchestral song he stands as still as possible and refuses to compete with the orchestra. “If I get covered by the orchestra, then that’s fine. I’m not going to win when it’s 80 against one.”

And the sublime moments? Russell Thomas says, “The mezzo-soprano has them all.” Elizabeth Bishop agrees. “Most of ‘Der Abschied’ [The Parting, or, Farewell] is just one giant goose pimple. One of the parts I like best I’m not even singing, during one of the orchestral interludes. This gigantic wave of sound comes over me and ends up with this awesome [imitating the orchestra’s bellowing low chord]. I visualise a man who is facing the end of his life with quiet resignation, and I see vignettes of his life floating by him, and then realisation and sorrow and excitement for what’s next and finally acceptance.”

Advice on listening to “Das Lied.” Elizabeth Bishop advises, “If you really want to get the most out of a concert piece, it has a lot to do with what you bring to it as the audience member. I view the singer as the conduit who reads dots on a page and reconstitutes them. If you open your heart and let the piece affect your memory, your senses, then it becomes a very personal piece for you, regardless of what everyone else in the auditorium feels.”

What’s on Elizabeth Bishop’s wish list of roles to perform? “Oh, I want to sing Kundry [in Richard Wagner’s ‘Parsifal’] so badly, I could eat my own liver. Maybe I should eat a kidney; I’ve got two of those. Various roles I could just sing over and over again. I just adore Princess Eboli [in Giuseppe Verdi’s ‘Don Carlos’]. I love singing Amneris [in Verdi’s ‘Aïda’]. I would love to get another Amneris or two under my belt. It’s an awesome role.”

[To read the review of “Das Lied,” click here. To read a review of the concert’s first half, Tan Dun’s “Earth Concerto,” click here.]

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