"Gorgeous." "Luminous." "With utter panache." That's the way the national media has described mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Bishop's voice and performances. She has performed with the Metropolitan Opera as Venus in Tannhauser, with the Washington National Opera as Eboli in Don Carlo, and as Mere Marie in Dialogues of the Carmelites with Deutsche Oper Berlin and the Palm Beach Opera. If you caught the world premiere of The Dangerous Liaisons on PBS, you saw her perform the role of Emilie. The credits are definitely impressive.
But if you talk with Betsy Bishop '89 for more than 30 seconds, you realize that this successful singer has two endearing characteristics: She doesn't take herself too seriously, and she hasn't abandoned her Southern roots.
Ask about her most memorable performances and you get this answer: "There have been so many for so many different reasons. As far as the 'Gee whiz, I can't believe this,' probably the opening night of Dangerous Liaisons in Washington. And I sang Venus in Tannhauser at the Met last year. That was just unbelievable."
Ask her about what she's doing right now, and you'll wonder when she takes time to breathe. "Now I'm on vacation," she says. "I'm doing various and sundry concerts over the summer. Beginning work on Bluebeard's Castle. . . I'm about to sing Zita for the Washington Opera in Gianni Schicchi, Puccini's only comic opera (a deathbed scene is played for laughs) which I sang at Furman Opera Theater. Haven't done it since."
"Then I'm back to the Met to cover Eboli in Don Carlo and then doing Adalgisa in Portland and Frica in Die Walkure in Washington. Plus concerts in between - Verdi Requiems. I'm singing with the Atlanta Symphony, Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier. And in the spring I'm going to do a Mahler symphony in Winston-Salem (N.C.) with Robert Moody [fellow Furman alum of 1989], who has just taken over the symphony."
Spring brings another connection with Furman as she performs at the Peace Cetner for the Performing Arts in Greenville with the Furman Symphony Orchestra.
Ask her about her family and she'll tell you she lives with her husband Ken Weiss, music administrator of the Washington Opera, and their four-year-old daughter Katie in Reston, Virginia, and they are "happy as pigs in mud." That happiness, according to Bishop, comes from "striking a decent balance between work and family."
A native of Greenville, Biship went through the public school system and immersed herself in musical experiences - violin, clarinet, choruses, string ensembles. She attended Greenville's Fine Arts Center in violin and voice, then came to Furman on a violin scholarship as well as a Daniel Voice Scholarship. She was far more trained in violin than voice at that point, since "you can do that at a younger age."
By her junior year, she realized that a choice had to be made and, not surprisingly, she chose voice. Not one to limit herself, however, she double-majored in music and political science. While at Furman, she spent a summer in Strobel, outside of Salzburg - studying not music, but German and politics.
After graduating from Furman in 1989, Bishop arrived at Julliard School of Music. Her first reaction was anything but positive: "I sat down the first day of grad school and my first thought was, 'I have made a terrible mistake. I'm back in school.' I clawed my way through Furman, got out and was so proud of myself, and two months later my butt was back in a chair."
That feeling of having made a mistake faded quickly as she settled in and found out that, strangely enough, her studies in political science and history and science gave her a leg up on her classmates. "In a liberal arts education, you learn how to learn," she says. "And learning to learn one subject translates to other subjects. Learning how to research topics in political science helped me to research other areas."
That research prepared Bishop for the opera roles she would face. "To make sense of an opera role and bring something to it, you have to know how opera fits into history and understand a lot about different time periods. It really sets you apart if you can show up in performances and rehearsals with something to say."
In addition to "learning to learn," Bishop says that the music education she received at Furman was excellent, with "top notch" professors. "It was a wonderful preparatory step for me. I don't think I would have done so well had I gone to a different school."
Life since Julliard has not always been easy, and Bishop says it wasn't just her musical abilities that helped her through. "I always could sing. That I never really doubted. I'm a tough little cuss, and that I really never doubted either," she says with a laugh. "You have to have both. When I look back at the things young singers have to do to make it in the business, I'm surprised I had it in me. You live through some really rough stuff to get started. And up until you start getting paid, you never really know."