Rising Stars: Emily Pogorelc in the Washington National Opera’s ‘Candide’

When Emily Pogorelc bursts onto the stage in the Washington National Opera’s current production of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, there is a shock of laughter.

Soprano Emily Pogorelc as Cunegonde in the Washington National Opera's production of Candide. Photo by Scott Suchman.
Soprano Emily Pogorelc as Cunegonde in the Washington National Opera’s production of Candide. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Pogorelc plays Cunegonde, the spoiled daughter of a nasty but noble family. And when she peels off her gloves, she preens. Like a stripper, she wastes neither time nor motion, seducing Candide—the penniless protagonist in this ‘best of all possible worlds’—who is promptly kicked out of the castle and recruited into the army.

Although our heroine is supposedly slain in one of the sillier wars of the time—this, of course, is the 18th century, when rulers are arrogant and cruel, and when everyone is allowed to bear arms—Cunegonde makes it to Lisbon. There she emerges as part-time mistress to both the Grand Inquisitor and the Chief Rabbi. (It turns out they have similar tastes).

It’s an astonishing sequence, and Pogorelc plays it to the hilt. She glides effortlessly from gold-digging virgin to diamond-clad mistress, then sums it all up—and brings down the house—in her glorious solo, “Glitter and be gay, That’s the part I play.”

My fellow reviewer, Hilary Sutton, was so impressed by that aria that she urged local opera fans “to run to see this performance while Pogorelc is still a relative newcomer.” (Click here to read the DCMTA review.)

But how did this “newcomer”—a 21-year-old college senior when she was called in to replace the original lead—get such a plum role?

I caught up with her a few days ago and asked her if this was one of those stories where the heroine is plucked from a chorus and made into a star.

“Not quite,” she said. However, she was in the right place at the right time, the right place being on stage, as a young artist in residence, at the Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, New York.

Singing the lead role in a Handel opera as well as Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, she was quickly spotted by Francesca Zambello, who happens to be the Artistic Director of both WNO and Glimmerglass. (Zambello is also the creative force behind this production of Candide, which had its debut in 2015).

Kathryn Lewek, who had originated the role at Glimmerglass, was slated to do it again. But she was forced to withdraw due to pregnancy.

“It’s a very physical production,” Pogorelc explained. “There’s a lot of running around and lifting, and she decided it was too risky.”

The invitation to assume the role arrived on April 2. “I got a text from Francesca, telling me to come to DC at once. I did it,” she added, “because I do whatever Francesca says!”

She had just two days to learn the entire opera. Luckily, she already knew the big number, “Glitter and Be Gay.” “It’s my ‘party piece,’” she said. “It’s a great aria for concerts because it’s so extravagant. And it’s in English, which is good for non-opera events.”

It’s certainly a show-stopper. In fact, her performance reminded me of Beverly Sills, singing Mozart’s Queen of the Night at the New York City Opera in her youth.

When I told her that, she was delighted. “I love singing Mozart,” she said. At the Glyndebourne Festival, where she was the youngest finalist in history, she sang five of his arias and won one of the four of the top prizes. And just two months ago, the sang the soprano role in Mozart’s Requiem with the New Jersey Symphony.

Emily Pogorelc and Alek Shrader in Candide. Photo by Scott Suchman.
Emily Pogorelc (Cunegonde) and Alek Shrader (Candide) in the Washington National Opera’s Candide. Photo by Scott Suchman.

I thought that was quite a coup for a girl who grew up in Milwaukee, but Pogorelc disagreed.

According to her, Milwaukee is a hotbed of arts and culture. “We have tons of theatrical outlets,” she said, counting off two opera companies and lots of professional and semi-professional venues. As a freshman in high school, she did seven shows, mostly musicals.

Not surprisingly, Pogorelc was born into a musical family. Her mother was a singer and her father an avid fan. She herself began performing at age six, started voice lessons at nine and made her professional debut at 16.

“My family was always very supportive,” she said. “They agreed to help me as long as I had both the passion—and the willingness—to work hard. And I did.”

Last Saturday marked her graduation from the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Sadly, there was no time to attend. But one of her friends in the show—Marisa Brink, who is the production assistant—put together a “Glitter and Be Graduated” ceremony between shows.

There’ll be no time off after Candide closes, either, since she is already in rehearsals for a show at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. “That company is very special to me,” she said. “My voice teacher is a consultant at Lyric. And my parents took me there when I was a child. It’s what made me really want to be an opera singer!”

Back to Candide: I asked her what she liked best about the role. “I love the character,” she said. “She’s an ingenue, but she’s a strong woman. She knows how to take advantage of men.”

Soprano Emily Pogorelc (Cunegonde), mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves (The Old Lady) and tenor Alek Shrader (Candide) in the Washington National Opera's production of Candide. Photo by Scott Suchman.
Soprano Emily Pogorelc (Cunegonde), mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves (The Old Lady) and tenor Alek Shrader (Candide) in the Washington National Opera’s production of Candide. Photo by Scott Suchman.

What else? “I love feeding off the other actors in the cast. Alek—tenor Alek Shrader, who plays the ridiculous Candide—is extraordinarily funny, as is Denyce Graves as the Old Lady.”

Happily, Emily Pogorelc will be glittering on stage for four more performances. Seeing her now is one of those rare opportunities to see a talented performer before her name is a byword of the entertainment world.

Candide is performed in English with projected English subtitles.

Running Time: Two hours and 45 minutes, including one 25-minute intermission.

Candide plays through May 26, 2018, at the Kennedy Center Opera House –  2700 F Street, NW, Washington, DC. For tickets, call (202) 467-4600, or purchase them online.