The first thing you notice about Alyson Cambridge, star of the Washington National Opera's upcoming production of Show Boat? A mega-watt smile and perfectly polished style. We caught up with the Arlington native — and total fashion plate — before opening night at the Kennedy Center to talk about her personal style, life as an opera singer, and favorite ways to unwind when she's not bringing down the house.
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Photographed by Maria Carey
How did you go from your Arlington upbringing to performing all over the world as a professional opera singer?
"I grew up surrounded by music. My mom was a classical music fan, always listening to the radio [for] opera or symphonic works. She introduced me to the piano at age four, and I began lessons then. My father listened to calypso, disco, reggae — I had a diverse musical palette from the beginning and was always encouraged to explore my musical interests. Because I began piano at such a young age, I think I developed a finely-tuned, musical ear. I could also imitate anyone I heard — and that included opera singers. I would mimic what I heard on the radio as a joke. A neighbor heard my imitation, thought I sounded pretty good, and suggested I take voice lessons. And so it began at age 12."
BCBG jacket, Fox's tank, Alice and Olivia skirt, Steve Madden heels.
"I studied classical voice all through high school and into college as a voice performance major (and sociology minor). When I was trying to decide between going to law school or seriously pursuing a career in opera, I decided I'd give myself five years to 'make it happen' — and a year later, I was at the Met. I continue to set career goals for myself; I've been to so many amazing places all over the world, with great conductors and directors, but I still have more I want to do!"
Cambridge wears a ring she scored at a flea market in New York and a necklace she bought while traveling.
Tell us a bit about your daily routine when you're doing a production like Show Boat.
"When we are in the primary rehearsal phase, I am up every morning for a long run, some weights, a healthy breakfast of oatmeal and eggs, and then it's off to the rehearsal studio for the day. When we get into performances, I try to take it easy on my days off, rest my voice, lighten my workouts on the day of the show, and, if it's an evening performance, try to squeeze in a power nap so that my energy peaks at night and not too early."
What's your go-to look when you're not performing?
"I mix it up. When it comes to daily rehearsals, I try to look nice, and professional, but always reflect my personal aesthetic. I also wear things I can really move in and that are conducive to a long day on stage or in the rehearsal hall — maybe some nice skinny jeans, a cute top, some fun accessories. Nothing too fancy, but always nice.
On a day off, my look can range from funky and casual — ripped jeans, T-shirt, a cool hat — to more chic and sophisticated. I will be more edgy one day, and then wear a flirty, short spring dress the next. I love color, but also love a monochromatic, neutral look as well. I like experimenting with different trends and looks, and changing it up with my mood."
Traveling as much as you do must mean you've shopped all over the world. Do you have any favorite places to visit for great shopping?
"I do love to shop. It's a vice of mine, if you can call it that! I've found great shopping in almost every place I've visited. I try to pick up at least one thing that is unique to the city I'm visiting, as well. A few years ago, I started a little tradition of getting myself one nice thing at the end of the run of show, as a present to myself. Last year, in Chicago, it was a gorgeous coat. Sometimes, it's a great handbag. When I think of that present at the end as being the goal, that sometimes helps to curb my appetite to shop on every day off!"
Leather jacket she bought in Berlin while touring, Fox's tank, Alice and Olivia pants, Urban Expressions clutch, H&M heels.
We're a little obsessed with Cambridge's chic, white mani.
Okay, spill the beans: How do you keep your skin looking so amazing?
"When it comes to my skin, I think some of that is genetic! Both my parents have great skin and barely a wrinkle in sight. I do, however, have a simple, but effective routine. I use all hypoallergenic facial cleaners that are super gentle; almost never sleep in my makeup; wear an SPF 30 daily moisturizer under my makeup during the day; and moisturize at night with a simple night cream. Nothing too fancy, really!"
The globe-trotting performer found her statement earrings at a vintage shop in Chicago.
Do you have any makeup tricks you've learned from being on stage?
"When it comes to makeup, I have definitely learned some tricks from all the great makeup artists I work with in productions. You learn about highlighting, how to best accentuate your features, what colors make you pop. I'm at the point [where] I could probably do my makeup in the dark!"
Adam Lippes jacket, Diane von Furstenberg dress, Joan & David heels.
Is there anything cool or quirky that opera singers do that the rest of us might not know about?
"Singers are obsessed with hydration! We need our throats and nasal passages to always be 'just right,' to feel like we can sing our best. It is why you see us with water bottles all the time — or tea, or throat lozenges, etc. And I have yet to meet a singer who isn't in love with humidifiers, especially in the winter!"
A keen eye for statement jewelry means that Cambridge is always sporting a bauble she's scooped while on tour, including this cuff.
How do you decompress after a big performance?
"It's funny — after a big show, you would think you'd be exhausted. And in some ways you are. But there is an excitement, a natural high that comes at the end of a show, so it's always fun to go out with your fellow cast members and celebrate a little bit after what has hopefully been a good show. And sometimes you are just wiped, and you head home to watch some TV and then sleep."
Do you ever get opening-night jitters? How do you conquer nerves?
"I get opening night 'excitement,' which I think is healthy. There is definitely a little bit of nerves mixed in there, but it's really about the excitement. You've worked so hard for so long, and you get to the point where you want to get out there and show people what you've all been working on, and hope they enjoy it! If I am nervous, I try deep breathing, and I eat a banana before I go on stage. [Bananas] have natural beta-blockers and are supposed to calm nerves!"
And, the one item you never go on tour without?
"I am a heels kind of girl, so I usually have a suitcase full of them! But especially in Europe, you have lots of cobblestone streets and you walk everywhere, so I pack one pair of killer flat boots or cute flats. And my vitamins — if you're not healthy, you can't sing!"
What's your favorite thing to do when you come back home to Washington?
"I love visiting with old friends and family, and I also try to have at least one museum day. There are so many great ones in D.C. I could spend hours and hours in some of the art galleries."