Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Maid in Madison

While the action of Mozart’s comedic Cosi fan Tutte centers on two couples determined to prove their love and faithfulness, the real force of the opera is found in Despina, the scheming maid.

Taking on this complex role in Madison Opera’s production of Cosi fan Tutte—running March 13 and 15 at Overture Center—is Mary Elizabeth Mackenzie. The Madison native who’s now living and working in New York City, recently took some time out to discuss her upcoming role and trip home.

I understand you’re living in New York. What have you been up to there?

I’ve lived in New York for four years now. I came to the city to do my master of music degree at the Manhattan School of Music. Now I’m a freelance musician and I perform quite frequently in New York, but also in Philadelphia, Boston and Chicago. I’m very active in contemporary music, and typically have several concerts on my plate at any given time. Composers seem to know how to keep me busy!

How did growing up in Madison prepare you for a career in music?

Growing up in Madison was such a blessing! My mother, Nancy Mackenzie, plays clarinet in both the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, plus her chamber group, the Oakwood Chamber Players. So I grew up going to all of the concerts, operas, ballets …

I was actually a violinist long before I was a singer, and I have many fond memories of Saturday mornings with WYSO [Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra]. I also used to do children’s operas with Madison Opera, so they were my introduction to the whole opera process. I’m very proud of Madison’s musical community; the city is so lucky to have so many high quality musical groups, not to mention a gorgeous performing arts center!

How did you come to be a part of Madison Opera’s production of Cosi fan Tutte?

Like most things in the musical world, I was in the right place at the right time. Allan Naplan, the general director of Madison Opera, contacted me in December to find out what I was up to, and explained that they were looking for a Despina for their production of Cosi. I was going to be back in Madison for the holidays, so we set up an audition so that he and John DeMain could hear me. I came and did the audition … and the rest is history.

What attracted you to the role of Despina? What are the opportunities and challenges inherent in the role?

Despina is a character that I have really come to love in the past couple of years. I studied her a little bit in college, but at the time, I didn’t have a lot of “life experience” that I could draw from to really understand her. Despina has definitely been with her share of men but doesn’t take relationships too seriously because she knows from experience that both men and women can be fickle. Being a single lady in New York City, I have experienced this firsthand! Playing Despina gives me the opportunity to focus on certain aspects of my own personality and morph them into something else entirely. My biggest challenge with Despina will probably be her extreme comedic moments, which I won’t reveal for your readers. You’ll just have to come see the show!

In the battle of the sexes in Cosi fan Tutte, Despina seems to be the only one who transcends sides. How are you approaching this character?

I think Despina is the only character in the opera who doesn’t have anything to prove. The two couples are trying to prove their love, or rather their faithfulness, to each other. Don Alfonso is trying to prove that women are unfaithful and Despina is along for the ride. She knows that both Fiordiligi and Dorabella and Ferrando and Guglielmo could easily fall for another person if given the right opportunity. She believes they are all too young to be thinking about settling down, and knows that if they were to open their eyes to other people, they might find that the grass is greener on the other side.

What are your goals for this production?

As with all my performances, my goal is to have fun and take the audience on a journey. It’s also another opportunity for me to grow as a performer and work with new people and meet new friends and colleagues.

Besides performing with Madison Opera, what else are you looking forward to doing while you’re in Madison?

My parents, sister and grandparents still live in Madison, so it’s going to be a real treat to get to be with them for three weeks! I’m sure I’ll be pretty booked with rehearsals, but I hope to be able to visit some of my favorite restaurants or go see a movie with my sister.

What’s next for you?

Back to New York! I’m doing a concert with the Juilliard Percussion Ensemble at the end of March, singing a very interesting piece by Jean Barraqué (a serialist composer, contemporary of Boulez and Stockhausen) for soprano, piano and six percussionists. I’m also working on a late song cycle by Fauré, Chanson d'Ève, with a wonderful pianist from Juilliard. And in April I’ll be appearing in a concert of selections from American opera with Harbor Opera, a small company in New York.

Madison Opera’s production of Cosi fan Tutte runs March 13 and 15 at Overture Center. For tickets or more information, visit

No comments: