The Reinvention of the Dixie Diva: Victoria Livengood Thrives In Act II of Her Career
October 14, 2013 - Everyday Opera
By Antonia Felix
Long artistic careers are all about reinvention—think Picasso, Matisse... and Madonna. Opera singers with the right stuff keep evolving, too, as renowned, Grammy-nominated mezzo-soprano Victoria Livengood has discovered in a new phase of her career that has her back in intense study mode learning scores of new roles. With performances this month as Herodias in Salome at Utah Opera and next year as The Fortune Teller in Arabella at the Met, among many more in her packed itinerary, the "Dixie Diva" from North Carolina is reveling in her transformation to dramatic and character roles.
"You'd think after thirty years I'd know all the rep," Miss Livengood told me in a phone interview, "but the good thing is that this is like my second career. I already had the first career, and that was singing the sexy lyric mezzo stuff—two hundred and fifty performances of Carmen, Delilah, all those sexy fabulous women. But for about the past five years my agents and I have been reinventing Victoria Livengood and I've now crossed over into a brand-new career with this fabulous dramatic and character repertoire such as Azucena in Trovatore and the witch in Hansel and Gretel.
Her calendar is filled with new roles and first-time appearances at several major houses. "This is one of the most exciting seasons I've had in a decade," she said. "I have company debuts, which is rare after thirty years in the business, and all of my projects this year are strange and wonderful. All the hard stuff. The big girl repertoire."
After her Utah engagement this year she will sing excerpts from Wagner's Wesendonck Lieder with the Louisiana Symphony, appear as Mrs. Noah in Britten's Noah's Flood with New Orleans Opera, and perform in Weinberg's The Passenger with Houston Grand Opera. Just last month she signed with Los Angeles Opera to make her debut with the company next year as Eunice opposite Renee Fleming's Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire. Following that she will sing Katisha in The Mikado at Hawaii Opera Theatre, and then reprise The Passenger with Houston Grand Opera at the Lincoln Center Festival. "If I had to learn one more things this year I think I'd just pass out!" she said.
Livengood considers the change of rep a must for keeping her career on track. "Once they reach their late forties or early fifties," she said, "many people can't find a way to find that extra longevity. I've found it in changing repertoire. Some of my friends ask me, 'What is it like to have once been the title role, the star, and now you're the upstairs neighbor of Rene Fleming?' Honey, I tell them, if I can be Renee Fleming's upstairs neighbor, I'll take that all day long!"
She reminded me that Placido Domingo is also changing his repertoire to stay in the game. "He's singing some baritones roles because he still sounds and looks amazing and nobody wants him to quit singing. so instead of continuing to do the ridiculously hard tenor rep, he's doing some of the baritone roles and being brilliant. That's very clever and inspiring."
In between engagements and learning new music, Livengood spends a great deal of time teaching. Young singers fly in to Charlotte for one or two weeks of daily 90-minute lessons she calls "Miss Vicky's Boot Camp," and she also gives lessons via Skype. She didn't plan on having a studio of 50 students and isn't sure how to make it work when she on the road solid for the next 14 months, but she loves teaching and is devoted to her students.
Her teaching, she explained, evolved out of doing some master classes. "'Where do you teach?' the students would ask. 'I don't,' I told them, 'I'm still an active performer.' One by one they would tell me their sob stories and I would invite them to do a consultation with me. 'I'll do anything,' they would say, 'please let me study with you.'" In addition to her out-of-town students, she works with many North Carolina singers who drive to her suburban Charlotte home for a 90-minute lesson once a week when she's in town. "I really want to help the quality of singers in my home state," she said. "I've built a wonderful studio filled with amazing young singers and there's no way I can give that up just to become an opera diva again, so I'm going to find a way to combine both worlds."
Being a voice teacher feeds Livengood's passion and invites her to become a mother, friend, and mentor to her students. "I had no idea I would become all those things to those young singers," she said. "But I love it; I embrace it. I think it's what's given me a second wind to get back on the road for this amount of time—they inspire me."
Teaching is just the latest of the many roles she enjoys at this rich point in her life. "I'm one of those southern women who thinks she can do it all," she said. "I'm still trying to be a normal wife, mother, daughter, and aunt, to keep a beautiful house and teach and study and perform. It's like that Helen Reddy song, "I am woman, hear me roar!"
For Livengood's complete schedule, photo gallery, biography, and much more, visit her website at www.victorialivengood.com.