As part of an open-ended project, I am interviewing (mostly) theatre artists from the perspective of life beyond New York City pavement pounding. It's to perpetuate the concept that life is bigger than one moment or job. The Artist's Way (to borrow Julia Cameron's phrase) is filled with reflection, complexity, autonomy, and integrity.
American singer/actor Elizabeth Welch recently completed a season-long run as the principal Christine Daaé in the Oberhausen, Germany, production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera, after years as the Christine understudy in the US Tour and Broadway productions. A mother and wife in Colorado who afterward found herself on the Great White Way, Elizabeth was kind enough to share highlights of her journey, which is beautifully, uniquely hers.
You studied voice and met your husband whilst working in Europe directly after school ended. What brought you to start your family life in Denver, Colorado, before ever pursuing an NYC career?
I was born and raised in Colorado. I love it there. We decided to live near family for when phantom-der-oper-oberhausen-tickets-15we had kids. My husband’s family was in Buffalo, NY and beautiful Colorado had much more appeal to us than the snow belt of Western NY. My husband always said, “It’s a great place to be from!” I can’t really tell you why we didn’t go directly to NYC, except that I am very much a Colorado girl, and it’s a hard state to leave behind!
Many actors start out on a career path without a partner or family, waiting usually until their mid-late 30s to “settle down.” You have arguably done the opposite. In what ways has this order of events contributed to the quality of your career?
I did do it backwards. Having a child and a family was important to me. More so than having a career in performing. I always knew I would perform, but I never put pressure on it being my “career”. It was my passion, and I would do whatever side job was necessary to give me the freedom to perform. I didn’t want the pressure of earning a living to be in anyway attached to my auditions. I do what I do because I love it. I think this lack of pressure helped my career, because I only brought fun into the audition room. I had nothing to lose, which brings a relaxed energy and therefore, a better audition.
I would also say, having a child grounded me. It gave me a deeper understanding of myself and the world. There is no substitute for life experience, and I take it all with me into every role I play and every audition I take.
Who knows what my career would have been if I’d moved to NY right out of college. But I assure you, I wouldn’t change a minute of my journey.
How did the opportunity to play Christine in Germany arise? Did you pursue it or were you asked?
It’s just crazy the way life works. I was in rehearsal in NY and I said something offhand in German. Nothing major, just a simple phrase. But our dance supervisor knew they were looking for a Christine in Germany. That small moment started this whole ball rolling. You just never know! But it’s a clear lesson on the power of our words!
In coming to the role “anew,” were there any particular scenes you deepened your research or intention for?
Having a month of rehearsal for a role I’d known for 7 years was such an amazing experience. I was able to look at everything from a new perspective, because I had the time. I had a new director. I had the freedom to explore and see things from different angles. In addition to that, there are variations in the German translation. It’s not a word-for-word translation, so I had new intentions in the text I was singing. Because of that, I was kind of seeing each scene for the first time. I know the character but she suddenly had a new way of expressing herself. It was awesome. I loved this process.
Are there any particular differences you’ve noticed with German and Broadway audiences? Has that affected the work in any way?
The main difference I noticed was the length of the curtain call! These German audiences love to applaud! They’re very generous and genuinely want to be here. Oberhausen is relatively small, so the audience comes from all over. People make a special trip to get here, which makes it even more special.
You are not a fluent German speaker, though your education background assuredly prepared you to do the work. In undertaking a principal contract in Germany, how did you begin to prepare to be a non-native speaker in a German-speaking country? Was a translation provided? And was it a literal translation?
My classical training was a huge help. I’m very well prepared to sing in other languages. However, I was signed on pretty late and only had a few weeks with the German translation, which is not word-for-word. I began translating it myself because I absolutely needed to know every word I was singing. I started with only Christine’s text. Luckily, just as I was starting to translate the rest, they sent me a “back translation”, which was the literal translation of the German text. That saved me a ton of time!
Did you do any physical or phonetic work for the language?
Oh yes. Absolutely. I had the best phonetics coach, and we spent a lot of time together! He wanted the best, and he knew I wanted to be perfect (or as close to it as possible) so we worked very hard on my accent. And we still meet every other week for an hour to keep it strong and clean.
While the intentions are likely the same, the literal words and thought structures are different. For example, on the rooftop, you’re not singing, “All I Ask of You,” but, “More Want I Not from You/I couldn’t want anything more from you.” How have these new images, regardless of language, affected your work in the role? Anything revelatory that surprised you?
Yes, there are differences! Which is exactly why I needed the word-for-word translation. It changes everything. The overall intention is the same, but there is a big difference between, “We had such hopes, and now these hopes lie murdered,” and “Piece by piece you broke my childhood beliefs/hopes.” WE hoped vs. YOU broke is an interesting difference.
Some of the German poetry is so lovely. I prefer certain phrases, actually. Some parts work better than others, of course. But overall, I really enjoyed this challenge. It’s wonderful to have a new way to express Christine’s feelings.
Opening your own company of Phantom must have some qualitative differences. How does the atmosphere of doing the show in a small German city with an international cast differ from doing the show with a mostly American company in a long runner?
I wish everyone could have the opportunity to work abroad. Nothing compares to that life experience. Working with people from every corner of the world opens your eyes and you heart to things you could never imagine. There are many cultural differences, which are beautiful, and give you a respect for history you couldn’t learn from a book. However, there are many more similarities than differences. Just a bunch of humans working on the same job. The world is so much smaller than we think. I wish airlines were as inexpensive as public transportation. The world would be a different place if everyone could come visit their fellow humans across the ocean.
This might seem too simple a question, but in what ways have the different costumes and wigs and spacing and even sets possibly affected your work in the show?
Not at all a simple question. Not much changes for me in character and intention. There are more changes from the translation than from the costumes and staging. However, the staging and costumes add physical and technical issues which took some getting used to. Especially since Christine is such a physical role. I had to learn how to run and get up off the floor in all new huge dresses. That’s not an easy task anyway!
What keeps you inspired during a long run? You’ve been involved with Phantom as cover (and now principal!) Christine for nearly a decade. Is it a work/life balance?
There is absolutely a balance between work and life, and that is a constant tightrope walk. For everyone, I believe. Staying balanced on that tightrope does help keep the show fresh. You can focus on work when you’re at work, and home when you’re at home. I feel like the audience can sense if you’re thinking about the load of laundry you might have left in the washer. It’s all about balance.
Also, we have a different show every night. Often, people are sick or on vacation, so we have a different cast every night. And even if the cast is the same, each audience brings its own special energy. Live theater is an ever-changing art form. Just like Live Life! That’s what makes it interesting.