Becoming Judith: Michelle DeYoung on Bluebeard’s Castle

Becoming Judith: Michelle DeYoung on Bluebeard’s Castle

On May 16 and 17, the Houston Symphony presents a spectacular, semi-staged production of Bluebeard’s Castle featuring world-renowned singers Michelle DeYoung and Matthias Goerne. In this post, star mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung discusses her take on the role of Judith in Bartók’s fascinating operatic masterpiece. Get tickets and more information here.

Michelle DeYoung, mezzo-soprano

“I think it’s one of the greatest pieces ever written.” So says Michelle DeYoung about Béla Bartók’s masterpiece of expressionist opera, Bluebeard’s Castle. And she should know. When asked how many times the celebrated mezzo-soprano has sung the role of Judith in this opera,
she replies, “I would guess more than 100. It is one of those roles that I look forward to every time. It is always a challenge, and also so much fun to sing.”

Bartók’s masterpiece, arguably the greatest Hungarian opera ever written, is just one of her many specialties. Michelle is in high demand throughout the world for her wide-ranging repertoire, which includes vocally taxing roles in the operas of Richard Wagner, Didon in Berlioz’s Les Troyens, contemporary operas from the likes of Tan Dun, and John Adams, and everything in between.

These diverse works require linguistic flexibility, to say the least, but even an enterprising American singer like her initially found the Hungarian in Bluebeard’s Castle a bit of a challenge. “It was quite daunting when I started working on Judith so many years ago,” she admits. “I had a CD made by a Hungarian mezzo who clearly spoke through the role…and I studied it and studied it. I then wrote the entire role in the IPA [International Phonetic Alphabet]. The first time I sang it was with a young Hungarian conductor, who helped me further…then I kept working on it, and
worked on it with Peter Eötvös,” the renowned Hungarian composer, conductor, and teacher. “He and his assistant brought it even further. I continue to work on it before every performance. I love singing in Hungarian, but it’s tricky.”

After so many acclaimed performances, Michelle now pretty much owns the role of Judith on the international stage, and in 2014 she commercially recorded it under the baton of Esa-Pekka Salonen. It is a terribly complex role, both technically and dramatically. Vocal challenges include a range that tops out at high C, and Judith’s psychological impulses suggest that she is afflicted with “Desdemona Syndrome”—she can’t stop asking probing questions of her husband, even when stopping is clearly in her best interest.

“I actually think that is not atypical for many women,” she explains. “We want all the secrets out in the open, and we think that will bring us closer. [Judith] wants Bluebeard to know she loves him no matter what.” Love may not be Judith’s only motivation, however; regarding the mysterious fates of Bluebeard’s previous wives, Michelle adds, “I think also part of her is afraid the rumors might be true…so she wants to make sure they aren’t.”

These performances of Bluebeard’s Castle reunite Michelle DeYoung with Matthias Goerne, the Wotan from her recent recordings of Wagner’s Ring Cycle. It also reunites her with Houston. Audiences have been fortunate to frequently hear her at Houston Grand Opera. “I did get to see quite a bit of Houston and the area,” she says. “I always look forward to returning.” We look forward to that, too! —Eric Skelly

Experience Bluebeard’s Castle live on May 16 and 17! Visit for tickets and more information.

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