Show Boat sits on the cusp between the early 20th century style of Operetta and Musical Theater as we know it today. You will be playing Julie LaVerne, the lead actress on the Cotton Blossom, a show boat that brings entertainment to towns along the Mississippi River. This is a departure from your usual operatic soprano roles. How will you approach this role?
I actually wanted to be a Broadway belter before I ever even considered a career in opera, so I’m really excited to get to sing some classic musical theater and explore the lower part of my range (I sang second alto and tenor in high school and became a soprano against my will…). I have always been more interested in being a singing actress and a good storyteller than in producing perfect “pear-shaped tones,” and while Julie does get to sing a couple terrific tunes, I think my main job is to use those songs to reveal her character and advance the plot. The words are very simple, yet highly evocative, and there are plenty of opportunities to paint some images that will really draw the audience into the story.
Julie is the pivotal character in Show Boat, straddling the worlds of the white actors and the black dock and boat workers. She is African American (or mixed race), but “passes” for white and is married to a white man. This is significant because the show is set in the 1880s, a time when, in many states, mixed race marriages were illegal and an African American actress would not have been employed with an otherwise white cast. What is your feeling about the significance of this role historically and how will you personalize it?
I certainly can’t complain about being discriminated against personally, and while I am from the South (or at least the Southwest), the issue of miscegenation was never given any thought when I was growing up, at least in my home. It’s true that we are often doomed to repeat the history that we might prefer to forget, especially regarding the acts of discrimination and dehumanization we ourselves have committed, but rather than trying to drive home the guilt that we have inherited from our not-so-distant ancestors, I will simply do my best to make Julie come across as a real person, not merely an archetypal character or even a representative of her race. Making the issue personal (in the literal sense) is far more effective than addressing the larger concept; likewise, discrimination against a group of people is always far easier than discrimination against an individual, especially one you know and sympathize with. And Julie is indeed very sympathetic: kind, talented, generous, and truly brave. If I just tell the story as Julie lived it, I think the historical significance will take care of itself.
Emily Pulley (Beatrice) and Keith Phares (Charlie) in Three Decembers (2001)
On Sunday, we’ll continue our question and answer session with Emily, as we learn her favorite Central City story. Stay tuned!
The above questions are just part of an interview with Emily Pulley in the 2013 Opera Insider. Download the pdf for the full article and much more on the history of the 2013 Festival productions, their composers and librettists, interviews with the artists and more.
Show Boat plays at the Buell Theatre in the Denver Performing Arts Complex from August 6-11, 2013.