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Pittsburgh Opera’s “The Passion of Mary Cadwell Dawson” Will Wrap Season 2023/24

“In 1943, the National Negro Opera Company is set to perform on a floating barge to evade racially-segregated venues,” the opera’s program notes tell us. “But when bad weather threatens—pushing the performance to a segregated performance hall—visionary impresaria Mary Cardwell Dawson must find a way forward.”

The notes continue: “Mary Cardwell Dawson’s dream to provide access for African Americans to perform on stages for all audiences changed the future of opera. Having founded the longest-running, all-Black opera company here in Pittsburgh and organizing opera guilds in the country’s biggest cities, Mary Cardwell Dawson would go on to train hundreds of African American youth to sing.”

Alyson Cambridge, new to Pittsburgh Opera, will sing the title role, and recently sat with Chris Cox, Director of Marketing and Communications for Pittsburgh Opera, and gave an interview to be shared exclusively with onstage Pittsburgh.

Alyson Cambridge (Photo by Enrique Vega)

Chris Cox:  Alyson, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Alyson Cambridge:    I’m an opera singer, also a producer and model and an actor, and I’m thrilled to be making my Pittsburgh opera debut here in The Passion of Mary Cardwell Dawson. I’m originally from the DC area, but now I’m a New Yorker for 20 plus years. This is my third time in Pittsburgh, but the other two times were for concert performances, which were very brief stints. So this is my first time being here for an extended amount of time, and I’m looking forward to exploring the city.

C C:  Besides being an opera singer, you also sing musical theater and jazz. Is it difficult to go back and forth between genres?

A C: I think for a singer, technique is technique, and so my basic technique doesn’t really change when I’m switching genres; what does change is how I use my voice, even if the base technique is the same. So if I’m singing jazz, for example, I will implore a more sort of straight tone. There will be more sliding-back phrasing. Stylistically, obviously, there’s lots of differences.

Stage Director Kimille Howard watches Alyson Cambridge (Mary Cardwell Dawson) during a rehearsal

Same thing in musical theater: I might sing a little bit brighter or just take more liberties with phrasing and maybe the position of the mouth, and everything isn’t as sort of tall and heightened as it would be with opera. So those are some of the differences, which, very subtle changes, make a big difference to the audience in terms of what they’re hearing and experiencing.

In The Passion of Mary Cardwell Dawson, I really like to be able to use all the different sides of my voice, because it has modern compositions of original music by Carlos Simon, and you will hear a little bit of jazz and soul combined with operatic stuff. And elements that are more implored in musical theater, sort of speaking some of the lines a bit more… So this is a great piece where I get to showcase all of the different types of vocalism.

C C:  You’re portraying a real-life person in this piece. How is it different preparing to play a fictional character, a Mimì or Carmen, than it is to portray someone who was an actual flesh and blood person?

(left to right) – Alyson Cambridge (Mary Cardwell Dawson), Meroe Khalia Adeeb (Isabelle), Christian Mark Gibbs (Frank) and Jazmine Olwalia (Phoebe) rehearse a scene from The Passion of Mary Cardwell Dawson

A C: There’s definitely a big difference. I feel like there’s a greater responsibility when you’re portraying somebody who actually lived, existed and there are stories, pictures, writings about that person. In many ways, it’s great because you have those tools to work with to help you indicate what your character should be like. There are true anecdotal stories about Mary Cardwell Dawson and the type of teacher that she was and her relationship with her husband, and all these different things that I, as an actress, can draw on and be very specific and intentional about.

Whereas when you’re portraying a fictitious character like a Mimì or a Carmen, there’s a little bit more artistic license in terms of how you decide to portray that character. I’ve probably done 20, if not more, different productions of La Bohème as Mimì and as Musetta. And every production has been a bit different, particularly somebody like Musetta. We know that she’s a coquette, that she’s a flirt. In some productions, you don’t have a lot of sympathy for her. You just think, “Wow, this lady is a fireball, and she’s a little too much to handle.” And then you see her heart in Act Four. And then there are other productions that say, “We’re going to give her more intelligence; we’re going to give her more this or that.” And the same thing with Mimì. In some productions, she’s sort of a wallflower, but in other productions directors say, “No, no, let’s give her some more spunk.” So you have those opportunities, whereas with Mary Cardwell Dawson, we have a very informed knowledge of who she was, so I feel that responsibility in portraying that.

C C: What attracted you to this role?

Alyson Cambridge (Mary Cardwell Dawson) and Christian Mark Gibbs (Frank) rehearse a scene from The Passion of Mary Cardwell Dawson

A C: I was first approached to do this part in the summer of 2022 with the Glimmerglass Festival. And truth be told, I did not know who Mary Cardwell Dawson was; I’d never heard of her, which was shocking. I’ve been in this opera career nearly 25 years now, and I couldn’t believe that I didn’t know about her history, her legacy, and frankly, how she very much opened the doors for somebody like myself, for a woman of color. And I just was so excited to dive in and learn all about her.

Also, not only just about this piece specifically, but doing a play with music is different than doing a straight opera. As somebody who sings and performs in other mediums besides just opera, I love the acting challenge. I love that there is spoken dialogue, that I get to interact with the other characters in the show by just speaking, and really get to flex my acting muscles and not just my vocal muscles.

C C: What are some of the things that the audience has to look forward to about this show?

A C: For anybody who has maybe not seen an opera before, this is a great entry point. Let’s say you’re somebody who’s more used to seeing straight theater or straight plays. This has that theater play element, but then you get these tidbits of grand opera because, in the course of the show, we hear highlights from Carmen. If somebody’s never been to an opera before, they’re going to go, “Wait a minute, I’ve heard that song before.” And then to realize, “Oh, this is part of this bigger opera called Carmen” is cool, and that could be a nice entry point. In the course of this show, you see Mary Cardwell Dawson teaching and coaching these young singers on that. So in another way, it also shows audiences, whether you’re a theater person or an opera person, sort of how the sauce is made. It gives you sort of a backstage look at what a rehearsal process is like. That’ll be a really fun thing for the audience to see. There’s also the history lesson of it all, which is done in a way that isn’t done as a ‘history lesson’. It’s not a lecture; you are experiencing what Mary Cardwell’s daily life was and then also the struggles, the highs and the lows, of establishing and promoting the National Negro Opera Company. I think there’s a little bit of everything for everybody out there within this show.

C C:  If Mary were listening right now, what would you want to tell her?

A C: The first thing that I would say to Madame Dawson is, “Thank you for paving the way. Thank you for being as passionate as you were.” The title, The Passion of Mary Cardwell Dawson, you really see that she was so passionate about opera, about passing down her knowledge and love for the art form to the younger generations, and also passionate about standing up for the right thing, and breaking down those barriers, and not giving in to the racism that was rampant at that time, and showing that lesson about doing the right thing and about standing for something to her students. She was an incredible example, and I hope that if she’s looking down and listening, I hope I’m making her proud, and that everybody else in this production is making her proud.

C C: You had the opportunity to go visit the National Opera House earlier this week. Tell me about that experience and what it meant to you.

A C: Seeing the National Opera House, it was exciting and also kind of sad, to be honest. Knowing that it has been in a lengthy renovation process but that it is still in rather dire straits is was kind of sad to see. But at the same time, I’m thankful to Jonnet for rescuing the house and realizing its history, and wanting so desperately to promote the home, the legacy that exists here in Pittsburgh.

And then walking through and doing that tour of the house in each room and knowing sort of the other greats that were there performing or just hanging out and having a good time. I thought it was outstanding to know that Lena Horne was there, Cab Calloway, Clemente. I mean, you had Steelers, Pirates hanging out all in this opera house, this place where she taught opera lessons, and then they had these grand parties in the “tearoom,” or the salon. It was a wonderfully haunting experience.

C C: Is there anything else that you’d like to add?

A C: A show like this that is multi-genre—which combines the theater, the acting dialogue, along with moments of grand opera and the Carmen excerpts, as well as the original music by Carlos Simon—is something I would personally love to see more of. It is a way to get in newer and more diverse audiences, and it’s a way to tackle interesting subject matters. I’m thrilled for that aspect of it, and I feel very fortunate to have been a part of this production now for a couple of years, and I look forward to seeing where it goes from here.

For more information about the production, cast and TICKETS, visit Pittsburgh Opera.

David Bachman Photography for Pittsburgh Opera