Q&A: Mezzo-soprano Krysty Swann on her debut as Mayme in Ricky Ian Gordon & Lynn Nottage’s ‘Intimate Apparel’

Opera theater
Photographer credit: Dario Acosta

Mezzo-soprano Krysty Swann currently performs the role of Mayme in “Intimate Apparel” at the Lincoln Center Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater. The opera is one of Ricky Ian Gordon’s last works and features a libretto by Pulitzer Prize-winning Lynn Nottage based on his play. Production officially opens on January 31, after a two-year hiatus from previews due to Covid-19.

The intimacy of the theatre, combined with direction by Bartlett Sher, lighting by Jennifer Tipton and an exceptional cast, make this new opera refreshing, unique and emotionally gripping.

OperaWire spoke with Swann about bringing the production to life, for her and the entire cast, and how the story can remind us what it means for every voice to be heard, felt and seen.

OperaWire: “Intimate Apparel” is unlike anything I’ve experienced before as an opera and I’m curious how you brought Mayme’s role to life. What can you tell us about your process?

Krysty Swann: I’ve dreamed of having the opportunity to tap into Lynn Nottage’s story from the moment I first heard it, and not because of me or my technique or even my antecedents. My job in “Intimate Apparel” is to process this wonderful story of multi-dimensional people – ordinary human beings – coming back to what we do after two years off stage. Coming back to live performance is my process. Before the pandemic, I felt like I was on a drug. Then when the scenes got dark, I felt like it took that drug away from me. The grieving process I went through because of the job loss was a new experience for me. It emptied me.

I think “Intimate Apparel” has helped me better understand this new experience surrounding grief and how to release my emotions through my work – because that’s me and that’s what I’m here to do. When I first heard Ricky’s music, I fell in love. My voice knew the music before my brain could even think because I grew up with this kind of singing listening to Sarah Vaughan, Judy Garland, Julie Andrews, Lena Horne and Shirley Verrett. I also fell in love with Ricky and felt that connection with him because I wanted to sing a part like this, and it lets me use everything I grew up loving singing, and the production was also an opportunity for me to make sure to balance my voice through the techniques of jazz and opera. I learned how to mix all these ways of singing together for the role of Mayme and I went back to the drug that sings for me.

I also feel like my family is part of this performance because when I told my grandmother about Lynn Nottage, she was so excited. She follows her work from the beginning and I feel a connection when I play; it’s like my whole family and my community are in the same boat. History embraces you and us at the same time. I feel like I’ve changed forever because I didn’t know an opera experience like this could exist.

OW: What do you think are the most profound issues that this opera addresses?

KS: “Intimate Apparel” is an opera that speaks to people and lets them know that they don’t have to suffer alone. I felt drained when the pandemic started for everyone because that’s what we as artists are here to do. We sacrifice everything to work and it doesn’t matter what role you play. There is beauty that comes when you realize this for yourself and for your whole existence as a human being. I am grateful for our community and committed to our community. Every time I sing, I sing as if it were the last time because who knows if it will still be necessary to interrupt it because of the new variants of the Covid. All I can do is give it my all in every performance I can give. We all sing beautiful music and live these characters to their fullest in this incredible staging.

OW: Do you remember where you first heard Ricky’s music and knew Mayme was for you?

KS: I was originally referred to an “Intimate Apparel” workshop in 2015 where I first heard the music and felt like I already knew that role. Mayme made me want to do this because I immediately fell in love with her character and the music. My repertoire naturally leans towards Verdi, but I can also do Weill’s ‘Lost in the Stars’, so Ricky wrote music that uses my full instrument, and I recognized that from the start. Plus, I could learn music with Ricky in his apartment, and I felt like we were on the same page with it all. I had been looking for a connection like this all my life.

Preparing to live the whole story of Mayme was a new experience for me. She is very pragmatic and adaptable. She does what she has to do, but I have the impression that she psychoanalyzes everything and knows what will inevitably happen. There’s a confidence and fearlessness in her that I’m still learning to embrace. I had to give myself permission to be fully in this role and I received a lot of support from Bart Sher and my colleagues in every scene. I learned to tap into all the surrounding energies to nourish myself. I am the eldest of four younger sisters, so I also benefit from this experience as Mayme. When I lost my mother and took on the responsibility of caring for my sisters, it instilled in me something that I now use as Mayme.

OW: I also really like the music and the way the singers naturally sound in their own voice. Sometimes I forgot it was an opera because I was so involved in Nottage’s story and Gordon’s music and how they blended together to create an experience that wasn’t separate from the voice of anybody. “Intimate Clothing” comes from a very honest background and I think that makes opera extraordinarily refreshing. But there’s also an underlying tone of emptiness that resonated with me and prompted questions about each character’s perspective. It felt like it left an insatiable desire intentionally unfulfilled because he lived with this void that we all universally feel.

KS: Yes. That’s why I had my eye on “Intimate Apparel” from the start. The void touched me the most because it is what connects us all universally. I understood that a lot more when I started learning the role of Mayme. It’s not that she wants to do anything wrong, or that she makes choices to hurt anyone; she makes her choices from a place of thirst and emptiness. She gets tastes of relief here and there, but she doesn’t expect him to go away. Like a desert where you only receive drops of water, this emptiness is the driving force that carries you forward and can never be satiated.

I have also seen my colleagues fall into this level of consciousness, and then this void took on a whole new level of ability. At this turning point, I decided to let my emotions out. I had the impression that there was an uprising in me that was too much, but that I had to learn to free myself. It was as if my body was trying to follow what I had already overloaded my brain through processing these emotions. We can only hope that people feel this trauma as a message to reconnect and remember how we all came from this place of emptiness in our own way and how this helps us to come together again.

OW: Do you think “Intimate Apparel” will attract interest from new audience members? How about your experience when talking with someone who has never been to the opera?

KS: Something like “Intimate Apparel” has never been done before. The amount of detail and stage work we did directly with Bart Sher really sets us up for a thoughtful performance. We have taken the time to focus on bits of Lynn Nottage’s story and Ricky Ian Gordon’s music to make this new opera accessible to a wide range of viewers.

The other day I was talking with my Uber driver about “Intimate Apparel” and the importance of changing the perspective of opera lovers so they remember what opera is for and how it is for everyone ; it was never for one group of people. This piece can help us remember that. Ricky has this amazing way of merging the English language with musical themes that become musical history for everyone. There are also elements of each of Lynn Nottage’s characters that I can relate to on some level.

You’ll see moments in history you know as your own. I can even identify with the character of Mrs. Van Buren because I know the history of this period and I know what the social problems were. But most importantly, it’s on a deeper level that I sympathize with her and what she’s going through as a woman. Her pain is like Mayme’s pain and Mayme’s pain is like Esther’s pain. These women then lock themselves together to create a moment where women feel heard and understood. It then becomes a universal theme, which is the sign of good writing and good music. I tell people, this opera is for you. This opera is for you and this is how opera can be for you.

I think the uniqueness of “Intimate Apparel” starts at the root of how this opera started with opera singers in mind and remained focused on honoring their natural voices. Nobody is supposed to change their technique because it’s an opera and that’s how the opera can become more organic. I think it’s a perfect beginner’s opera for everyone to see.