Even by modern opera standards, Peabody Southwell is a fascinating anomaly. The 34-year-old L.A. native is that rare singer who is equally at home in traditional, classic opera productions and more adventurous, avant-garde experiments. Even rarer, Southwell is a vocalist who is also a director, dramaturge, and production and costume designer.
In recent seasons with L.A. Opera, the mezzo-soprano has demonstrated her impressive range by vamping it up as the coquettish La Ciesca in Woody Allen's production of Giacomo Puccini's bittersweet farce Gianni Schicchi, stealing scenes as a charismatic Paquette earlier this year in Leonard Bernstein's Candide and flitting about a surreally cartoonlike set as the ethereal Third Lady in Barrie Kosky's visually fantastic interpretation of W.A. Mozart's The Magic Flute.
Southwell revealed much more of herself — literally and figuratively — when she daringly performed fully nude as the corpse of an executed murderess in the 2016 world premiere of David Lang's bloody and engrossingly macabre operatic vivisection, Anatomy Theater. In another experimental production at REDCAT, she portrayed the Doctor in Beth Morrison Projects' 2017 adaptation of Ingmar Bergman's psychological drama Persona.
“For me, being naked on a table covered in fake blood while a bunch of men pontificate about my evilness felt very resonant of the perception of women in [modern] society,” Southwell says about Anatomy Theater during an interview at her home perched on a steep hill in Echo Park, where she lives with Twombly, a courtly black Lab mix. “Opera is about telling human stories in one of the most primal ways we can.”
Southwell has appeared with L.A. Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony and Long Beach Opera. She has worked alongside an unusual assortment of directors, conductors, singers and composers from traditional and avant-garde disciplines, including Plácido Domingo, James Conlon, John Adams, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Michael Tilson-Thomas and Ted Hearne. She'll make her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York this fall in composer Nico Muhly's Marnie. “The best directors are the ones who leave space for the performers to work their magic,” she explains over servings of tea and blood oranges.
“I'm proud to be known as game,” Southwell adds about her reputation for taking on challenging roles.
She was raised in Glassell Park and Sierra Madre by her mother, Joan Southwell (“a super creative preschool teacher”), and her father, Tom, a production designer. “I grew up on film sets,” she says, and began singing at age 4. “My dad claims I sang before I spoke.” One of her grandmother's friends sternly warned Southwell's parents, “Your daughter will be an opera singer; don't mess it up.”
“I have no interest in giving up singing. It's a compulsion for me. … But my voice is activated by fuller activity,” Southwell says. “I'm fascinated by stories and how that translates into sets and costumes,” as well as how she can shape often-complicated opera plots into streamlined narratives. “The dramaturge is the protector of the story,” she explains.
“I consider all these interests as one skill, which is storytelling,” Southwell says. “I think that the classical and opera scene in L.A. is completely underrated. … It felt for a while that we had a cultural vacuum here, but it's filling with a vengeance. And I'm really happy to be a part of it.”