But “Show Boat’s” larger message about labeling people according to race has implications in the opera world today. Two Washington natives performing in WNO’s “Show Boat” have experienced the challenges of working in an industry that often casts labels on voice type, age, race and appearance. Alyson Cambridge, whose father is Guayanese and mother is of Scandinavian descent, is playing Julie, a weighty role of a performer who conceals her race. Cambridge is sometimes considered too striking, too young, too soft, too something for the meatier roles she strives to play. But her interpretation of Julie proves that the soprano, who had her Metropolitan Opera debut at 25 in 2004, is no longer the sweet-sounding ingenue she was in her early 20s.
Soloman Howard, an African American bass in the WNO Domingo Cafritz Young Artist Program, is playing Joe in three shows, bringing him closer to his mentor Morris Robinson, who is also starring as the cerebral dockworker. Robinson is helping guide Howard through the pitfalls and nuances of one of the most popular solos ever written for the bass voice. “Ol’ Man River” is both blessing and bane, a memorable song that can pigeonhole a singer to the point that strangers in airports approach Robinson with a ‘I bet you could sing the heck out of ‘Ol’ Man River’” after hearing his low speaking voice.
For the seasoned soprano and rising star, “Show Boat” is an honor and a risk, a musical fraught with racial symbolism that can mirror the tensions within the opera world. But while Cambridge and Howard are aware of all the cultural and artistic freight, they refuse to let it limit their ambitions.
This isn’t the first time that soprano Alyson Cambridge, 32, has returned to her family’s home in Arlington while performing at the Kennedy Center. In 2010, she set up camp in her parent’s basement when singing the role of Clara in the WNO’s “Porgy and Bess.” Now, she’s reprising the role of Julie in “Show Boat,” which she played last year in the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s production, which WNO Artistic Director Francesca Zambello also directed.
Cambridge’s parents know her obsessive routine — the tea, the workout, not to interrupt her before a show — a regimen she began when she sang lead roles in musicals at Sidwell Friends School more than a decade ago.