San Francisco Opera: Soprano Sarah Cambidge talks knitting, Harry Potter and turning villain in 'The Handmaid’s Tale'

Soprano Sarah Cambidge talks knitting, Harry Potter, and turning villain in 'The Handmaid’s Tale'

Soprano Sarah Cambidge is excited. Like, super excited. It has been weeks since she was announced as the villainous Aunt Lydia in the West Coast opera premiere of The Handmaid’s Tale, and yet, judging from the sheer enthusiasm radiating through the telephone line, you might have thought she’d just won the part yesterday.

It can be hard to square the bright, bubbly Cambidge with the cut-throat characters she sometimes plays on stage. And yet, her transformations are consummate. As the Foreign Princess in 2019’s Rusalka — a femme fatale who scuttles the heroine’s one chance at happiness — Cambidge glided on stage with icy intensity, her eyes narrow, her manner aloof. This was a woman who could break you. This was a woman with no limit to her command.

Speaking by phone from New York, Cambidge shares how she discovered opera and how she’ll approach the role of Aunt Lydia, one of novelist Margaret Atwood’s most infamous creations, in our 2020 fall season.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: How did you first discover opera? Take us back.

CAMBIDGE: Well, I always loved music, especially as a kid, so my mom put me into a couple different choirs. But [there was] one in particular, the Vancouver Bach Choir, and while I was there, I think the conductor was kind of frustrated with us one day.

She was trying to get us to sing more legato or sing the line how she wanted us to, so she demonstrated and said, ‘Sing it like me.’ And I wanted to. So I tried singing it like her. She was an opera singer, and it just came out.

So she talked to my mom and said, ‘Hey, you need to get this girl into some voice lessons.’ I started voice lessons when I was eight. I was super young. But it worked out really well, and I was with my first teacher for nine years, outside of Vancouver.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Did you have any idea of being a singer at that age?

CAMBIDGE: I think pretty much immediately. When I started voice lessons with Patricia Plumley, I remember going and seeing a concert. It was an opera concert. And I remember turning to somebody and saying, ‘I want to be an opera singer.’

I must have been about nine, I guess. Super young. I think my voice was always headed that way. I did do some music theater and things like that. But my voice was always operatic, so it bit me young, and I wanted to sing.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: What was it about opera? You could do any number of singing styles.

CAMBIDGE: I think it’s the power. Not just the powerful stories, because they have such a wide span of emotions, but also the physical power of the sound of the voice just hitting you when you’re sitting listening to it.

The first show I was ever in, I was in a kid’s chorus for Carmen at the Vancouver Opera. That was my first opera, and I remembering hearing the Micaëla and the Carmen — just the power of the sound going right through you. It’s such a visceral feeling. And it’s that power when you’re singing of feeling that volume coming out of you, out of your mouth. It’s a cool feeling.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: When did you find out that they were looking at you for the part of Aunt Lydia? What was going on in your mind?

CAMBIDGE: My agent sent me the inquiry asking, ‘Hey, they’re interested in you maybe being Aunt Lydia.’ I’d read the books. Margaret Atwood is a Canadian, and so she’s huge up there obviously and big down here too with the Hulu series and of course her book.

You know, Aunt Lydia’s such a complex character. It doesn’t surprise me at all that she’s more of the dramatic, full voice — the dramatic soprano character.

I sent back a ‘Yes, yes, let’s figure this out! I really would love to do this.’ And luckily it all worked out and I can’t wait. With this cast, it’s going to be absolutely incredible. I can’t wait to be a part of that.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: You’ve played villains before on our stage. You were the Foreign Princess in Rusalka, manipulating Rusalka and her prince in turns. And now you’re taking on this other role that seems quintessentially villainous with Aunt Lydia. How are you going to start to get under her skin? She’s so hard to sympathize with!

CAMBIDGE: She can be! You know, she’s got two sides to her. On one side, she seems to actually love and advocate for these girls at the Red Center. But then, of course, on the other side, she’s a part of this system and has these responsibilities to the Republic of Gilead to get these girls prepared. And she’s such a devout believer in these leaders and their doctrine.

I think she just blindly believes in what she’s doing. In her distorted idea of what that is — and she is extremely unlikeable — I think she truly believes that she’s making a difference. She thinks she’s helping these girls who have been women of childbearing age who have been living in a sin of some kind or a second marriage or whatever. She’s trying to give them a higher meaning in a way.

It’s so complex, because she’s totally the villain, but in the same part, she truly believes she’s doing the right thing. It’s going to be fun.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: You can count on one hand how many times this opera has been done in the world. What’s it like being part of this production?

CAMBIDGE: It kind of feels like you’re a part of history. Atwood just wrote that new book, The Testaments, which I haven’t had a chance to read yet, but it’s on my to-do list for the next few months. You’re a part of something that’s so relevant to today. It’s fabulous.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: What do you do in your free time as an opera singer? It’s so physically involved. How do you relax?

CAMBIDGE: I do a lot of crafts. Do you know in Harry Potter, on Ron’s bed at Hogwarts, he has that quilt or that blanket? There’s a blanket on there that apparently Mrs. Weasley made for him. It’s a patchwork blanket of all these little squares, and every square is different.

So I’ve been working on that. I was also at the Met earlier this fall in Macbeth. I played the lady-in-waiting with Anna Netrebko as Lady Macbeth. It was sensational to be a part of that production, so I started this quilt during that process, and now I’m finishing it off…

I love knitting and any time I can bring out my inner Gryffindor, it’s fun. Kyle [van Schoonhoven, Cambidge’s partner and fellow opera singer] is a Hufflepuff. Sometimes these offers, like The Handmaid’s Tale, they can be quite dense with heavy subject matter. It’s fun to be able to do something a little more light-hearted.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Do you ever get starstruck?

CAMBIDGE: Anna Netrebko in my first performance at the Met, getting to sing in that production while she’s singing Lady Macbeth.

In the section of the show where she has her beautiful aria, I was sitting on the stage with the Doctor while we’re watching her have these hallucinations. She’s reenacting trying to get the blood off Lady Macbeth’s hands. And I’m just sitting there thinking, ‘Where am I? How is this possible? You’re watching Anna Netrebko sing not even two or three feet away from you on the stage at the Met.’

Or like when I’m at San Francisco Opera in the Ring with Donald Runnicles conducting, and I’m singing the Third Norn, with Ronnita Miller and Jamie Barton. I’m thinking, ‘How am I here? How was I so fortunate to have this opportunity on the San Francisco Opera stage?’…

That was the coolest production I’ve been in by far — the Ring at San Francisco Opera. That was just life-changing, to be able to see that and be a part of something so massive.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: What’s your favorite place to visit or hang out in when you’re in the Bay Area?

CAMBIDGE: Probably Noe Valley. I love it there. They’ve got Noe Valley bagels. It’s like my favorite thing. I love going down to the beach. Being from Vancouver, of course, water is huge. Anything West Coast girl. San Francisco is my favorite city of all time, if I had to pick a favorite place.


CAMBIDGE: I love San Francisco, yeah. I consider it like my home. I’ve been lucky; I’ve lived in some very pretty places. But I think San Francisco because San Francisco Opera and the Merola Program, they took a chance on me. They opened up all of these doors for me.

I think of how fortunate I was to have been at the right place at the right time with the right people getting the right help and learning while I was there. It’s because of San Francisco that I’ve been so fortunate this past year, being out of the Adler Fellowship. That’s why San Francisco means so much to me.

They’re the ones who really took a chance because I was a big voice and I didn’t really have anything on my resume. I’d been teaching at a middle school-high school liberal arts program in Denver. So I didn’t have a lot of experience. And they’re the ones that gave me the experience that has gotten me in the doors that I’ve gotten in. I’m very fortunate.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Having worked with kids, what do you see as the biggest barrier to young people enjoying or engaging with opera?

CAMBIDGE: I think a lot of kids think that opera is unattainable, because it may be in a foreign language or, ‘Oh, it’s just an older person’s art form.’ But that’s so not true. Recently, I just went and saw Porgy and Bess here at the Met, and they opened up the dress rehearsal to kids.

Hearing the kids see this and see opera — they were so engaged, just like in San Francisco when they have the Family Days. Getting people exposed to opera, they’ll realize that it’s not just an unattainable art form. Everyone can relate to these stories and the music. It touches you.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.