Mary Beth Nelson is a gifted young mezzo-soprano who is a member of Florida Grand Opera’s 2017–18 Studio Artist program. On Saturday, November 11, 2017, she opened in Miami at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts’ ZIff Ballet Opera House, in the small but key role of Alisa, the anxious confidante of the title heroine in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. Nelson is one of the common denominators in two separate casts headed, respectively, by Anna Christy and Joshua Guerrero and by Haeran Hong and Jesús León.
BK: I have such an indelible memory of the Met revival of Lucia di Lammermoor back in 1992. It was an overwhelming experience for me. And on Saturday night, at opening night of Florida Grand Opera’s Lucia, starring Anna Christy and Joshua Guerrero, I felt that I was finally able to put that experience in its proper place. The 1982 Lucia was a performance that I’ll never forget, but what I realized on opening night at FGO is that it is Lucia itself, not any one performance of it, that means the most to me.
MBN: Wow. I love that. I think Anna’s interpretation at FGO is so fresh and so different from any recording or youtube videos that I’ve listened to. She would look at me sometimes in rehearsal, and she’s so real. I would think, “That’s not Anna Christy. It’s Lucy, who has a screw loose somewhere.”
BK: Yes. In this production, she doesn’t just snap in an instant. The unraveling is wonderfully foreshadowed at the beginning. By the way, congratulations on your own very good reviews.
MBN: I haven’t read them yet!
BK: Well, then—let me read them to you. In South Florida Classical Review, David Fleshler said that you sang “with an ample voice and dark foreboding.” In Palm Beach ArtsPaper, Greg Stepanich called you “a strong Alisa, with a darkly colored voice.”
MBN: Thank you. I’m honored to be in a main stage production during my first year here. It’s been interesting, too, to have two casts to work with. Everybody does something a little bit different. Anna and Haeran Hong interpret things very differently. I thought Haeran was just on fire at last Sunday’s performance. I walked offstage with her, with my arm around her, and I felt like I was touching greatness.
BK: Are you from Orange County originally?
MBN: Born and raised. I lived there for sixteen years. And then my parents moved to Texas. This little town called Burnet, about an hour from Austin. Dad lost his job and we relocated to Texas, and they bought some land. They did a restart. I went to a performing arts school in California. I was home schooled until I was in tenth grade. And then I went to Orange County High School of the Arts. Matthew Morrison went there. It’s a big film/theater/ballet/opera school. I moved from that to this beautiful small town in Texas, where I went to public school. That was a bit of a change. But they helped me to go to this wonderful school in Oklahoma that had a great voice program.
BK: Which one?
MBN: Oklahoma City University.
BK: Is that where Leona Mitchell went?
MBN: Yes. Leona Mitchell. Kristin Chenoweth. Kelli O’Hara. And it’s funny, because my voice teacher, Frank Ragsdale, who was there, now works at the University of Miami. We were there and now we’re both here. He’s a really great teacher.
BK: What did he give you that was most important in your development as a singer?
MBN: Oh, man. He helped me make the transition from soprano to mezzo-soprano. My audition aria to get into college was “Rejoice greatly” from Messiah. My coach, Jan McDaniel, and it was followed up by Frank later, said, “I think you may have a mezzo color.” I think the first aria I learned was Siebel’s aria from Faust, “Faites lui mes aveux.” I sang that for an audition for Tales of Hoffmann at my school, when I was a sophomore. And I wound up getting Nicklausse. That was my gateway into all of this.
BK: Well, it’s funny how confused people get over the soprano/mezzo question. It’s so often a question of variance of color. I remember back in the day, when so many people said, “Oh, Jessye Norman is really a mezzo.” But she wasn’t. Not at all.
MBN: And it happens with baritones, bass-baritones. Baritenors. All of those.
BK: You have done a pretty terrific range of things for someone so young. At Tri-Cities Opera, where you were a Resident Artist, you sang Dinah in Trouble in Tahiti. Playing Ruth Bader Ginsburg in Scalia/Ginsburg, last summer at the Glimmerglass Festival. Tell me about Trouble in Tahiti at Tri-Cities.
MBN: Isn’t it mysteriously beautiful?
BK: Yes. And so deeply sad.
MBN: Yes, and when I was learning it, it was hard to turn a page without feeling that sadness. We were conducted by Warren Jones, who I think he is one of the most thoughtful people in the industry. We were lucky enough to get to coach with him about three weeks before we started the production, in snowy January, for a show going up in February.
BK: One of my favorite pieces of vocal music in the world is “I Was Standing in a Garden.”
MBN: It’s stunning. And the orchestration is so bare. So minimal. And when we did it, the strings just kind of lamented, along with Dinah. The consonants in the words, I think, were the tie. There was something she was grabbing at [she lands hard on the consonants as she demonstrates]: “I was standing in a garden/A garden full of seeds.” I remember Warren Jones talking about singing through the vowels and everything, but Dinah is needing to find the next place to go, and she can’t. So she’s grabbing at anything.
BK: You’ve done two years at Glimmerglass.
BK: And a high point for you there was in your second year, playing Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in Derrick Wang’s Scalia/GInsburg.
MBN: I remember meeting her. It was our last show at Glimmerglass. And we were going to take a picture with her. Really, no words were exchanged. She had on this gray-and-black two-toned shawl. I remember her giving me the once-over. She had a pleasant face on, but she didn’t really say anything.
The piece was rewritten for me, because it was originally written for a soprano. I think there were a couple of high Es in the piece. I worked with the composer. We took those down. But that piece was really interesting, because it had a lot of words in a short amount of time. I think the challenge was the diction. Audiences aren’t used to hearing lawyer jargon. We had a director, Brenna Corner, who was wonderful. And Bill Burden was the guest resident artist for the summer and I felt so lucky to get to work with him. He and Antonin Scalia are nothing alike. Bill Burden’s a beautiful singer, and he would always have something intelligent to say about the music and the staging. He would question why the libretto and music were like this in certain places, and I think that helped us to answer questions about what to do as actors.
BK: Did the whole project sort of change directions as you were working on it?
MBN: Kind of. Our director, Brenna Corner, was from Canada, and she didn’t know much about how the executive branch works. But yes, it morphed as we went along. Constantly changing. We had four versions of the score by the time we opened. Things were being cut and changed and put in different places. But it was intimidating meeting Justice Ginsburg.
BK: Did you get to talk to her about her love of opera—about which works animate her the most?
MBN: Yes. I think one of my own strong suits is comedy. Remember the meme about Justice Ginsburg falling asleep at the State of the Union address? I asked if we could put it into the show, and then I became nervous that she wouldn’t like that. I was afraid she might ask, “Why did you portray me like that?” But she wasn’t angry about it at all. She was happy. She said, “I loved the part where you fell asleep!” She loves comedy and she isn’t afraid to make fun of herself.
BK: At Glimmerglass, was there a lot of competition for the role of Justice Ginsburg?
MBN: I think there were two other women who had learned the role, and they were not asked to do it. I think that the people at Glimmerglass thought I looked a little bit like Justice Ginsburg onstage. But I don’t know if there was a big competition. I do have a strong musical theater background. In my first summer at Glimmerglass, I had belted a little, so they knew I could do that.
BK: Now, as far as FGO’s Lucia goes, I really liked the way that the staging let you focus on the performers as individuals. Was it a challenge working with John Doyle’s production, with its constantly moving screens showing the clouds shifting across the Scottish sky?
MBN: Elise Sandell [who paced FGO’s production of Doyle’s original] did a fabulous job of telling us where the screens would be and when they would drop in. As an actress, I do love to hold a prop. So that was a challenge for me—I had to find how to be comfortable in my body. For bel canto, I think it’s fitting that you have minimal scenery onstage, because you can really focus on the voice.
BK: I’d love to see a production that put the mother in the backstory. She’s such a monster in the novel by Walter Scott. The book is pretty impenetrable, but she’s a magnificent character. She is beyond despicable. And she bullies Lucy all the way. It would be so interesting to see that used as a reference somehow, though I don’t know how you would do it.
MBN: I think you might be on to something there.
BK: In terms of going forward in your career, what are the things about the opera industry that unnerve you the most? Certainly, there are a lot of people floating around who give bad advice.
MBN: I think having a strong filter is important, because we are constantly given opinions from other people. I think we need to take what speaks to us and put it into our artistry. I think it becomes overwhelming when we young singers forget that we got here because of who we are. We don’t need to change, we just need to augment that. I think it’s important to have a filter, working with a bunch of different people. All of us here at FGO have two or three people we go to for advice.
BK: Years ago, I interviewed a wonderful young soprano, Karen Bureau, who was in the Met’s Young Artist Program at the time. She described it as being similar to a greenhouse, with everyone being at different levels and requiring different levels of nurturing and care. Do you think that’s a fair assessment of what it’s like?
MBN: Yes. I think you have to be aware of advisers who can potentially over-water you with opinion. Sometimes we have to dry out a bit to know how much water we need. I think that’s an amazing metaphor.
BK: Tell me about Diana Soviero and Bernard Uzan, the artistic directors of FGO’s Studio Artist program.
MBN: I just remember my first lesson with Diana. I felt so loved. And I did with Bernard, in a different way. In more of a “you need to be the best” sort of way. They both ask a lot of us, but they are both here to lift us up and help us. It’s nice to have their backing. It’s a hard-knock life, sometimes.