Monday, October 10, 2022


Mary Elizabeth Williams has a habit of stealing the show when she appears at Seattle Opera. Her uncanny ability to fuse sound, sense, and stage action has made her a company favorite—not to mention the kind of singer Wagner fantasized about when he dreamed up his “total work of art." Preparing Isolde for the first time has been an extraordinary adventure for Williams, who now invites us to come along with her on this journey.

How exciting, to be singing your first Isolde! What an immense challenge!
My mother always said to me, when you have to do a big job, take it one day at a time, one task at a time. You have to break it down, because if you look at it as a whole, it can be really unsurmountable. There’s no standard preparation for singing this music. It’s not like you sing Wagner as a Young Artist. (Actually, I was lucky enough to sing the Wesendonk Lieder early on.) Studying it becomes rarified; the number of singers and coaches who actually know anything about it is small.

So who has been a mentor to you?
Nadine Secunde, who sang Isolde quite a bit. [In the ‘90s Secunde sang Ariadne, Leonore in Fidelio, Sieglinde, the Siegfried Brünnhilde, and the Marschallin in Seattle.] I’ve gone up several times now to coach with her where she lives in Wiesbaden, in Germany. She’s like my German counterpart; she married a German man and has a life in Germany, as I married an Italian man and have a life in Italy. I’m really grateful she has taken the time, and that she seems to enjoy working with me. She believes I’m able to sing this repertoire, but she also thinks I need to continue singing Italian repertoire too. I need to keep a balance.

Nadine Secunde (Sieglinde) with J. Patrick Raftery (Siegmund) in Seattle Opera's 1995 production of Die Walküre. © Gary Smith.

So you aren’t a “Wagner singer” from now on?
No. That’s something I’m very strongly resisting. There’s a lot of pressure on singers, once they start singing Wagner to become “Wagner singers.” I’ve never really fit in any one category, ever. This has been a trend in my life. I’m not at home in any one place, I take my home with me. I’m an American and a European. [Williams makes her home in Milan.]

When you work in European opera houses, with mostly European colleagues, are you conscious of them thinking, ‘Here comes the American!” when you show up?
Absolutely. And the reverse happens, too; I’m conscious of being “the American who lives in Italy” when singing in America. I’ve always lived with that. I’m both things, simultaneously.

Speaking of what I like to call a ‘Both, And...’ situation: for some, Wagner and his operas are objectionable, because of the composer’s own antisemitism and how his work was appropriated by Hitler and the Nazis. Presumably you don’t feel compelled to ‘cancel’ Wagner.
I think we need to be discerning. Making sweeping broad-stroke judgments, commandments, ideologies, especially when dealing with people who’ve been dead for over a hundred years, is not helpful.

Mary Elizabeth Williams (Isolde) in rehearsal with Stefan Vinke (Tristan) at a staging rehearsal for Tristan and Isolde in October 2022. © Sunny Martini.

Your first Wagner appearance was supposed to be a smaller role.
Yes, I was going to sing Gutrune [in Götterdämmerung in Chicago]. That would have been a much more reasonable place to start. I didn’t get to do that...the production was cancelled because of the pandemic. You try to do the responsible, reasonable thing, but life gets in the way.

So how have you gone about learning this immense role of Isolde?
It’s been difficult to prepare Isolde all by myself in the bubble of COVID. A good friend who’s a coach and conductor in Vienna made me a piano track, so I could listen and sing along...Karaoke Isolde. But I can’t wait to start putting it together with orchestra. Nadine Secunde keeps telling me, “This passage will take care of itself when you get with the orchestra. Don’t stress too much!”

What a marathon sing. How do you prepare for the endurance challenge?
Well, today I sang the second and third acts; yesterday I sang Act One. It’s not really practical to sing the whole thing, beginning to end, by yourself. And I’m curious to see what the challenge of acting it is going to do, good or bad, to the challenge of singing it.

Mary Elizabeth Williams as Abigaille in Seattle Opera's 2015 production of Nabucco. © Philip Newton.

You’ve often played powerful, intimidating, even angry women: Abigaille in Nabucco, Lady Macbeth. Isolde is so full of rage and frustration in Act One, hurling all those laser high notes at Brangäne and do you approach that kind of thing?
I haven’t done it yet, so I don’t really know. But, based on my experience with other roles, I anticipate needing the kind of focus that helps you keep the emotions of the scene from overriding your entire bodily involvement in making the sound. You want to avoid angry, harsh singing; it’s not pretty to listen to, and it’s hard on your voice. I have to allow the emotion to affect the inflection; but I can’t let that be mirrored in the language of my body, which still has to be a supportive, cushiony place.

My sense is, this music demands more muscle—for the endurance and volume it requires—than some of the Italian roles I’ve sung. More support, more of a reliable hook-up with the pelvic base. (You don’t want the muscles of the upper chest and neck involved; then it becomes painful, and painful to listen to.) I think my Tosca, my Norma will be positively affected by what it is requring for me to get through Isolde safely! I’ve always wanted to get the most bang for my buck, when it comes to effort, and sometimes I’ve been able to get away with things that...were not ideal. But I didn’t know that until this repertoire forced me onto a different plane.

As for the character, I think Isolde’s bitterness, her acidity in that scene, comes from anguish and sadness. It’s not her natural state. Brangäne even says: “You’re not acting like yourself today. Why are you being so weird?” It’s difficult for me to treat Brangäne the way Wagner wants me to treat her...I don’t like to be nasty to people, on stage or in life!

We know Wagner loved Bellini’s opera Norma, and that it was an inspiration to him writing this music. Do you see a connection?
Norma has a reputation for being boring. But I think that’s because the vocal writing is so florid, sometimes we singers forget that our primary job is to tell the story! But if we remember that (while also singing beautifully, of course) it’s a fantastic story and it moves along really well.

I find that the action in Tristan does keep moving just moves really slowly. It’s like a huge barge, as opposed to a motorboat. In Italian opera, often we motor through to the next big moment, where we then stop in order to expound on what just happened. But with Tristan, there’s this constant, glacial movement. It takes King Marke fourteen minutes to break your heart. In an Italian opera, he’d do it in five. But the way he does it! It’s the most mature, wise, complicated response to betrayal I’ve ever encountered. I’m so looking forward to being part of this new (for me) kind of story-telling. 

Mary Elizabeth Williams (Isolde) in rehearsal with Stefan Vinke (Tristan) at a staging rehearsal for Tristan and Isolde in October 2022. © Sunny Martini.

Your Seattle debut was in Il trovatore, like Tristan a Romantic opera with an impossibly convoluted backstory.
Wagner works hard—maybe too hard—to tell us the backstory. It’s all there. We have it. I find it’s quite different than in Trovatore, where the exposition is spread out among many characters. There’s not one backstory in Trovatore, and some of it is not very clear—when was this fight? How much time has passed since the last scene? It isn’t organized in such a way that it’s easy to follow. Whereas in Tristan, Isolde tells most of the backstory, and then you get additional information from Brangäne, Kurwenal, and Marke.

Tell us more about Isolde and the men in her life...all three of them.
Yes, Morold, her original fiancé. That was an arranged marriage...but I don’t think she was against it. She thought it was appropriate, and intended to do her duty. It’s just more evidence that what she has with Tristan is really special. Same with Marke; he’s not a bad person. The fact that she would betray this kind old man, and risk everything she has, is further proof of how magical her love for Tristan is. The love potion is just an excuse. They were already there, before the potion. This symbiotic relationship has developed between Isolde and Tristan, and the potion just helps them acknowledge it. After that she can’t help being transported, with him, into a metaphysical place. Hopefully everyone, and the whole opera, is transported to a metaphysical place. That’s the goal.

Tristan and Isolde runs October 15–29, 2022 at McCaw Hall.

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