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A Grand Design

Interview with Peabody Southwell

By Tom Lady

When the opera neophyte asks the mezzo soprano sitting opposite him what the difference is between a soprano and mezzo, she patiently responds: “Mezzo means ‘half’ in Italian. Whereas sopranos can include many different types, from the coloratura soprano (e.g. Queen of the Night) to full lyric (Tosca), many people don’t know there are many varieties of mezzo.…I consider myself a zwischenfach [switching voice] mezzo. I switch in both directions, upward to soprano and downward to contralto. My voice is happiest switching from high to low...”

Then she adds: “Even down to baritone range. I love singing in baritone range!”

I tell her a joke I heard recently about how all Italian operas can be summed up thusly: A soprano and a tenor fall for each other, but then a baritone gets in the way and gums up the works.

“Yes!” She sits up as her eyes light up. “I want to be that guy! The baritone!”

Meet Peabody Southwell. Pea, as I’ve quickly come to call her. I’m sitting across from her at a hipster cafe in Echo Park, just down the street from her house.


Marnie at the Met (Pea is in green)

Before she could talk, Pea could sing. “But I made my own songs,” she says. “When we went on road trips, I would ask my mom, ‘Do you want it really wiggly? Kind of wiggly? Or not really wiggly?’ Today we would call it vibrato.”

So who was Mom? Pea describes her mom Joan as a hippie-centric preschool teacher whose teaching methodology was purely play based. “It was all informed by your imagination,” Pea says. “Mom was never bored, and you could never be bored around her.” She picks up the container of sugar on our table. “Like this. She could make a game out of this.”

Pea’s father Tom is a veteran art director and production designer whose dozens of movie credits include a smorgasbord of classics from the last forty years (hello, Goonies!). Pea has many a memory of accompanying Dad to the proverbial backlot. “Whoopi Goldberg gave me a Minnie Mouse doll!”

If you’re starting to see a genetic trend of creativity and innovation, we’re just getting started. The big kahuna in terms of creative influencers in the family tree is without doubt Pea’s maternal great-grandmother, Josephine Preston Peabody, the poet and playwright who made history when she became the first woman and the first American to win the Stratford-upon-Avon Shakespearean Playwrights Prize. Ms. Peabody was also, as it happens, mentor to the great Lebanese-American writer Kahlil Gibran, author of the prose poetry masterpiece The Prophet. Her husband Lionel Marks was a British engineer who is considered one of the pioneers of aeronautics. He became a professor at Harvard and authored the now classic Marks’ Standard Handbook for Mechanical Engineers. “But it’s worth noting I tragically inherited zero scientific skill,” Pea points out.

Perhaps, but then there’s this: In many of her published diary entries, Josephine expresses herself in distinctly musical terms: “God let me sing! I have songs to utter! I have something to say; - My dumbness cries to be heard.” Reading these entries, one is struck that her pursuit similarly fits her great-granddaughter to a T. Or rather, to a Pea.

It was while attending Los Angeles County High School for the Arts (LACHSA) that Pea parlayed her natural-born talent and family legacy into some semblance of instructional rigor. At LACHSA her mentor was mezzo Stephanie Vlahos, whose Full Circle Opera Project at LACHSA introduced Pea to a modern approach to performing opera. What’s more, LACHSA’s being on the campus of Cal State L.A. provided Pea with even more top-drawer training. “And not nearly enough adult supervision!” Pea laughs.

After Pea studied for a year at Northwestern, mezzo Mignon Dunn encouraged her to transfer to Manhattan School of Music. That meant years of intense conservatory instruction seasoned with summers spent in Italy. That time in Italy has “translated” (pun very much intended) into Pea’s fascination with language, leading to years ghostwriting supertitles for opera productions. “I’m not 100% fluent in any of the handful of languages for which I’ve written supertitles, but a great dictionary and a dramaturgical focus goes a long way to sculpt supertitles into storytelling.” Pea goes on to point out that singers almost never see the supertitles that represent their dialogue. “Singers know the dialogue’s literal translation, but that’s almost never what goes up on the supertitles. As a singer, I want to know what the audience is reading up there.”


As the title character in Agrippina at Opera Omaha

During graduate school at UCLA, Pea spent a summer teaching yoga at a music program in Hawaii when she landed an audition for her first professional gig: Janáček's Cunning Little Vixen at Long Beach Opera, quickly followed by almost a dozen more shows with the company. Soon she landed a part in LA Opera’s production of La Dulce Rosa at the Broad in Santa Monica, the inaugural production of LAO’s Off Grand series.

What really made Angelenos sit up and take notice was a certain experimental opera called anatomy theater, produced by REDCAT in the summer of 2016. Pea’s portrayal of 18th century prostitute Sarah Osborne, who murdered her husband and kids and whose letters and diaries largely informed the libretto, became not just another performance, but a statement. An announcement of a new kind of opera singer telling stories in a whole new kind of way. For one thing, portraying Sarah Osborne meant getting hanged in a public square and then lying buck naked on stage while bass Robert Osborne, as Baron Peel, dissects her before a paying audience eagerly searching for the source of evil. And mind you, Pea has to sing her arias and ensembles through all this. The L.A. Times gushed at the time: “In a remarkably believable performance, Southwell makes [Sarah Osborne’s] spirit rise.”

Indeed, the role of Sarah Osborne has become the paradigm for what informs Pea’s creative choices. “I’m interested in how men perceive women,” she says. “Opera famously loves to tell stories of women being victimized. A gross majority of those stories are written, composed and directed by men. I feel a responsibility as a performer, creator and woman to force those manmade depictions to reflect the powerful complexity of womanhood.”

Beyond that, Sarah Osborne also showed that Pea does nothing halfway. “The reason I get approached nowadays seems to be for roles that are uncompromisingly theatrical. I thrive when I can use my voice and my body as an expressive instrument for the full range of drama, rather than strictly for aural beauty above all costs.”

In the time since anatomy theater, after roles in the Woody Allen-directed Gianni Schicchi and Barrie Kosky’s fantasy-tastic reimagining of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, Pea has noticed that critics don’t really mention her singing per se so much as her performance. This is quite gratifying since, as she says: “My soul dies a little bit when I shut myself down creatively.”

As you can probably tell, Pea’s whole philosophy of what defines a singer’s career path is very much her own. That independence applies to her role preparation, too. When learning a new role, she’s a big believer in crafting something she calls the silent roadmap. “It’s like the ‘Think Method’ from The Music Man,” she laughs, referring to Robert Preston’s “Professor” Hill telling the orchestra players that if they just think of a song for long enough, they'll know how to play with zero practice. Pea explains: “All singing is muscle memory…. If I sang too soon before I understand a piece intellectually, I could create patterns in my muscle memory that are not optimizing the music.”

In all seriousness, Pea’s unique career choices included a decision to avoid representation of any kind, such as an agent or a manager. What about auditions? “I audition terribly,” she says. “I get work from other work.” Nor did Pea enroll in any sort of resident young artist program. And whereas most people in her line of work opt for New York as home base, not so Pea. She has made the very conscious decision to base herself in her native Los Angeles, despite no shortage of warnings that she’d never get work if she stayed here. “By staying here, I’m not miserable, and I’m close to my family.” Her family includes her godmother Sue, her late mother’s best friend and fellow school teacher. “When my mom died, my decision to stay came into sharp focus. It was so crucial I was able to be surrounded by my support network.” That network also includes friends Pea has had since first grade. “They’re still my closest friends,” she says.

 
As Sarah Osborne in anatomy theater at REDCAT

Sure enough, Pea is finding no shortage of work, demonstrated by her recent debut at the Metropolitan Opera in Nico Muhly’s Marnie. Besides, as Pea points out, “A lot of casting happens online anyway.”

That work includes a lot more than singing. Pea is also a director, a dramaturg and, proving she is her father’s daughter, a production designer. “Even when I’m not the designer, I always think in terms of environment,” Pea says. “The environment informs the story. It is as impactful as the words and the music.”

In 2018 Pea directed and designed Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti at Music Academy of the West (Marilyn Horne’s old school in Montecito).

The year before that she directed and designed a site-specific piece in Waimea, Hawaii entitled MOTHER | SISTER. This involved linking Pergolesi's Stabat Mater with Puccini's Suor Angelica and staging it at a Brutalist cement and wood chapel.

And what's coming up? First, you've got Like Glass by Ted Hearne (The Source), setting poems by the modern poet Dorothea Lasky for which Pea is serving as production designer, working with visual artist Rachel Perry to design the surrounding installation. She'll also be production-designing Jodie Landau's PERFOFSELF for Beth Morrison Projects. "It's an experimental performance piece exploring gender, narrative and identity," Pea explains.

Before those amazing projects, though, Pea will be Flora in LA Opera’s La Traviata. Director and designer Marta Domingo specifically requested Pea for Flora a year ago. Opening June 1, rehearsals don’t start until May. When I express surprise that they would wait until that late in pre-production, Pea assured me it was plenty of time for her to step back into Flora’s fabulous Art Deco-styled shoes.

And so whenever Pea does snatch some downtime, perhaps when she and her fiancé Anthony are taking their two dogs for a walk in Elysian Park, she can derive satisfaction that doing things her own way is panning out. “When I was little, the other kids thought I was a weirdo,” she says. “I was too much of a space cadet to notice or care at first. But then it did bother me. But after that I leaned into it and sang at people.”

Keep leaning in and singing at us, Pea.

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Author: Thomas Lady
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