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Can't help lovin' 'Show Boat'

Courtesy of Enrique VegaAlyson Cambridge

When the musical "Show Boat," with a score by Jerome Kern and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, arrived on Broadway in 1927, sheet music sales exploded. By the time the 1936 and 1951 films hit movie theaters, the songs had become embedded in American culture.

Now, the Washington National Opera breaks tradition to mount a co-production of the musical with the Lyric Opera of Chicago, the San Francisco Opera Association and Houston Grand Opera. It arrives in Washington following its smashing success earlier this season in Chicago. For the Washington run, half of the Chicago cast is reprising its roles, among them opera star Alyson Cambridge, who plays Julie.

"This is such a demanding role and a wonderful acting challenge," Cambridge said. "I love the two songs Julie sings, 'Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man' and 'Bill,' and the journey she takes from leading lady to a tragic end as an alcoholic. She reminds me of Violetta in Act 3 of 'La Traviata' when Alfredo comes back and learns that she is dying of tuberculosis. The same thing happens to Mimi in 'La Boheme.' The story passes over the part of Julie's life the audience doesn't see, so when she returns 20 years later, I must convey what has happened since the time she was at her peak."

Cambridge grew up in Washington, studied voice at the Levine School of Music, attended Sidwell Friends School, and continued her education at Oberlin College and the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.

'Show Boat'
» Where: Kennedy Center Opera House, 2700 F St. NW
» When: Saturday through May 26
» Info: $30 to $270; 202-467-4600; 800-444-1324; kennedy-center.org

Her future in opera was firmed upon winning the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. She entered the Met's Lindemann program and made her Met debut as Frasquita in Bizet's "Carmen." Along the way, she spent the summers of 2004 and 2006 with the Wolf Trap Opera Company, where she added the role of Adina in "L'Elisir d'Amore" to her resume.

Since then, she has carved a place for herself in this country and abroad singing the roles of Violetta, Mimi, Donna Elvira in "Don Giovanni," Micaela in "Carmen," Musetta in "La Boheme," Juliette in Gounod's "Romeo et Juliette," Susanna in "Le Nozze di Figaro," Clara in the WNO production of "Porgy and Bess" and numerous others. Earlier this year, she performed with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in a special televised concert to honor Martin Luther King Jr. Her recitals and concert dates have taken her to Paris, Denmark, Hawaii, Barbados, New York and back home to Washington.

One of her most fascinating projects was her debut recording with pianist Lydia Brown and subsequent concerts of "From the Diary of Sally Hemmings," a song cycle by composer William Bolcom with text by Sandra Seaton.

"They reached out to me and asked if I would mind reading it," she said. "I fell in love with the piece and can relate to Sally's personal characteristics, so I was honored to record and perform it at a few universities and in Carnegie Hall. It's a poignant piece, a tour de force, and it would be perfect for Washington. I hope to sing it here one day.

"Of all the experiences I've had so far, 'Show Boat' is the one that has changed my life. It was a long process working from the original production because rehearsals were longer and more intense than usual, but they paid off. This is a wonderful combination of straight acting, musical theater and opera. They all meld together. Opera is bound by the music, whereas a musical theater production on this scale gives creative freedom.

"Everyone in the cast has become a real family, and I've discovered the fun of performing in theater where things change from night to night. I'd love to do more shows like this and hope the Washington audience embraces it."