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August 27, 2014, 8:59 am

Opera singer relishes dual role

Mezzo-soprano Chrystal E. Williams plays the Muse in Academy of Vocal Arts' 'Les Contes d' Hoffmann'


Philadelphia’s prestigious Academy of Vocal Arts (AVA) will open its 77th season with Offenbach’s “Les Contes d’Hoffmann” (The Tales of Hoffmann), performed in French with supertitles in English. In addition to three performances in AVA’s intimate Warden Theater, 1920 Spruce St., the production will be presented at Central Bucks South High School on Nov. 19, and at Centennial Hall, the Haverford School, Nov. 21 and 22.

“Les Contes d’Hoffmann dramatizes the three great romances in the life of a poet, depicting the struggle between a man’s love for a woman and an artist’s dedication to his work. While Hoffmann loses each of the women he loves, he gains poetic inspiration and the ability to transform painful experiences into art.

Helping Hoffmann to cope with his heartbreak along the way is The Muse/Nicklausse, a dual role portrayed by mezzo-soprano Chrystal E. Williams, a second-year AVA resident artist from Portsmouth, Va.

“It’s actually one character split into two, but within the opera,” said Williams, who earned a M.M. in Opera Performance from the Yale School of Music and a B.M. in Voice Performance from Carnegie Mellon University before coming to AVA. “Throughout the play I am the Muse, and then I disguise myself as Nicklausse in order to be closer to Hoffmann. So the Muse is trying to bring Hoffmann back to his first love, which is poetry, and his true love — art. She knows that he likes to do all these things — drink and hang around, and do all this smoking and stuff. So she disguises herself as Nicklausse, who is a close buddy of Hoffman’s, so she can keep a better eye on him and make sure he not getting into trouble, and make sure he’s getting away from all these women. Because at least when he drinks and when he does all those things, his artistic side has sort of been kindled, instead of running after these women.”

Though Williams was blessed with a fine natural instrument and received early vocal training at the Governor’s School for the Arts in Norfolk, Va., she had not completely committed herself to an operatic career. However her perspective changed dramatically when she had an unexpected opportunity to hear the celebrated soprano, Leontyne Price.

“I was going to be a biologist or an elementary school teacher or a psychologist,” Williams recalled. “My freshman year, we took a trip to The Met with the Governor’s School, and I said, ‘How can this music help people?’ because I always wanted to do things helping others. I always wanted to do something with people, and making the world better. And he said, ‘You can help them through the music.’ So we went to Tower Records in New York City, and I saw Leontyne Price. I can’t tell you what she was singing — something on one of the monitors. I stood there, and I absolutely just froze. I said, ‘This is powerful!’ I fell in love with it, and I said that I wanted to help people through my music.”

Feeling that there is healing power in music, Williams often shares her gift with ailing family friends and nursing home residents.

Now fully committed to her craft and with Mozart’s mischievous “Cherubino” in her repertoire, the young mezzo is no stranger to “trouser” roles. However, she states that the dual role of The Muse/Nicklausse presents a particular challenge. 

“The challenge is being the boy, which is fine, but remembering that you’re still the Muse inside, and the Muse has a great concern for Hoffman,” Williams said. “In the beginning, she fell in love with this man, and it’s not your normal ‘fell in love.’ He’s the poet. This is art itself, and she inspires him. His genius is her, so if he’s not writing, then she’s no longer with that true love, and he’s no longer with her. So I have to constantly remind myself that though I am a ‘boy,’ I have to remember that I’m really the Muse, and the Muse’s intentions are what my real intentions are.”

Williams believes that the intrigue and light-hearted humor of “Les Contes d’Hoffmann” makes it the perfect production for first-time opera-goers. “What I like about this opera is that it’s a drama, but it’s also a comedy. The music itself is gorgeous, and I think the story is actually quite interesting because you have a story within a story, and that’s always kind of cool. I always encourage people to read the synopsis before they come, and as long as we’re doing our job and letting the music do its job, you should be able to follow along.”

As she hones her craft at Philadelphia’s world-class vocal academy and becomes immersed in the arts and culture of the city, Williams said in conclusion, “I’m a God-fearing lady that’s blessed. I mean, look how I even got here. I get to do what I love everyday and it doesn’t feel like work. I think my main mission is just communication and bringing people together. That’s always what I’ve wanted to do.” For tickets to “Les Contes d’Hoffmann,” call (215) 735-1685 or visit


Contact Tribune entertainment reporter Kimberly C. Roberts at (215) 893-5753 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .