Though she only released her debut EP September 27, Dove Cameron is already trading pop stylings for melodies straight from, as she calls it, "Coloraturaland." The Disney Channel and Off-Broadway alum makes her Los Angeles Opera debut beginning October 12 in The Light in the Piazza. She's no stranger to the vocal shift, having previously sandwiched star turns in both the pop-infused Clueless Off-Broadway and a London run of Piazza between production and the release of Descendants 3 (in which she also sings).
Fortunately, she isn't alone in navigating varied vocal demands. While Cameron jumps from Disney Channel to the opera house, as Clara Johnson, her co-star, star soprano Renée Fleming, continues her journey through the American musical theatre with The Light in the Piazza after crafting a repertoire featuring the likes of Verdi, Strauss, and Mozart. In addition to playing Margaret Johnson in the Adam Guettel and Craig Lucas musical, she took to the Broadway stage in Carousel (earning a Tony nomination) and released an album of new and classic Broadway tunes.
The two reunite in L.A. after the Daniel Evans-helmed production's world premiere in the U.K. Ahead of their West Coast bow, Cameron spoke to Playbill about her years-long dedication to the musical, why she distinguishes Clara from other ingenue roles, and joining Fleming in Coloraturaland.
You’ve professed your love for Piazza on Twitter long before this production was in development. What sparked that fascination?
Dove Cameron: It's been a part of my life since I was eight years old, and Clara has been my favorite ingenue since I was that old. The thing about Clara is she presents very simple, but she’s unbelievably complex. For an ingenue in a sort of traditional musical theatre role, that's very rare to find. The ingenue the most boring part in the whole show. The story itself is so stunning and heartwarming and emotional. I feel if there was a show that could embody me as a person, it would probably be a blend of Piazza and perhaps something a bit darker. I think Piazza is a lot lighter than I am, but the lighter parts of my personality are definitely encapsulated in Piazza.
There are all these complexities to Clara, but something still struck you at eight years old. How has your appreciation for the show evolved since you were eight?
I think we as a culture really underestimate children; children are incredibly perceptive. I've been an incredibly intense personality since I was tiny. I was screaming Jesus Christ Superstar when I was seven years old, singing the leprosy song and “King Herod's Song,” painting my face and running around. But Piazza has been something that always cut straight through me. It made me sob when I was eight, and it's not just through the plot. Adam really encapsulated what these characters are going through—verbally or nonverbally, in the lyrics or otherwise—in this way that goes beyond the part of the brain that develops as you get older, which is why I think I loved it when I was small. Obviously when you grow up you understand complexities on a deeper level. With every loss that occurs, every life experience you gain, you understand things more fully.
Do you feel you understand Clara more after playing her?
There's a Clara character in all of us that is so pure and innocent. Adam's lyric, “I know what the sunlight can be,” to me, means “I have seen sunlight.” It's so intense. It's the brightest and it harms but it also warms. It’s a life saver, but also a death bringer. Clara sees everything more clearly than all of them. She's the heartbeat of the show. My perception of that hasn't changed, but the depth of pain that Clara feels and that Margaret feels. Even though I'm not a mother, as I get older I can conceptualize what it would be like to have your heart walking around outside your chest. I empathize with her more than sympathize now.
What have you learned about your voice as an instrument as you balance the technical differences of Piazza and Descendants or your own music?
It’s funny, because when I'm recording, they don't like that pure sound, so you have to dirty your voice, which can be a bit damaging. It's like a muscle, right? Say for my job they want me really out of shape, and then really quickly I have to get in really good shape. It's like going to run a marathon if you've just been sitting on your couch. But as a coloratura, that is where my voice naturally sits. But the funny thing about Clara—and Margaret, really, Renée and I always talk about this—is it's a deceptively challenging range. You hear the score and you would think it sounds really operatic and soprano-specific, but it's really not. I was talking to Adam and I was like, "Why would you do this?! This is so difficult!" The range is always in your mix; it's almost always in one song going from chest to mix to soprano head voice Coloraturaland. It's really challenging in that way. He wrote it on most women's breaks, so Renée and I always laugh about that. Like, "Curse you, Adam!" But it's a good challenge.
I have to admit, I never expected to put you and Renée Fleming in the same headline.
No, I don't think anybody did.
What makes the two of you click?
She's just like this earthy gal. She's got this maternal, warm, nurturing, calm energy to her. Celinda [Schoenmaker, who plays Franca] as well. They've quickly become two of my best friends in life. We just want Renée to adopt us and tuck us in at night. I don't know what I thought she'd be like, but I didn't think she'd be that maternal. She loves to laugh, she’s cuddly, she's sarcastic. Our personalities are very similar. It's been a total joy.
In addition to reuniting with Renée and Celinda, what excites you most about bringing Piazza stateside?
I'm a bit nervous to come back to it, because every time you do something and then you come back to it, even in between seasons on my old sitcom or in between Descendants movies, I'm like, “Do I know how to do this? Oh god, what if I've forgotten how to do it? What if something happened to me and I was no longer able?” But I hope that within in the States, people are going to respond well to the story. I think it's going to resonate with America, and I can't wait for my fans to be able to see it. It's kind of magical that we get to have a job and recreate experiences and form new ones with people we love.
LA Opera's The Light in the Piazza, also featuring Tony winner Brian Stokes Mitchell, begins performances October 12 and continues through October 20. Fleming will reprise her performance as Margaret during the production's upcoming engagements in Chicago and Australia.