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Oh Susanna! Met Star Comes to Davies Hall

May 20, 2014

Susanna PhillipsSusanna Phillips appears to be taking her ascendancy in the operatic world in stride, singing lead roles at the Metropolitan Opera and making guest appearances with major symphonies such as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, where she jumped in on short notice just last weekend to sing Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs. The Alabama native made her way to the Juilliard School as an undergraduate and then proceeded in 2005 to win a slew of competitions. Indeed, her triumphs at the Met auditions, the MacAllister Awards, and the George London Foundation Awards constitute a kind of American opera singer Triple Crown, not to mention first prize and Audience Prize at Operalia (the World Opera Competition), as well as numerous other grants and awards that nurtured her enormous talent.

Phillips often cites the support and encouragement she has received from the people in her community in Huntsville, saying that 400 of them made it to New York to hear her debut role at the Met. She has gone on to win consistent acclaim for the beauty and excellence of her portrayals of Mozart heroines and other roles in the lyric soprano repertoire, and has even cofounded a chamber music festival, Twickenhamfest, in Huntsville.

San Francisco audiences will have the chance to hear her on May 29 and 30 at Davies Symphony Hall under the baton of Charles Dutoit, artistic director and principal conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. The repertoire she sings requires a balanced intensity, the characters an openhearted love of life — two characteristics the youthful star seems to embody with ease.

You have stayed with the same voice teacher since Juilliard, is that correct?

Yes, Cynthia Hoffman. Ever since I was a freshman in undergraduate, and I continue to see her to this day.

I guess if it’s not broken …

“… don’t fix it!” Our dialogue has shifted over the years and our student/teacher relationship has changed. It’s not stayed stagnant, which is one reason people look for other teachers. Also, I’ve been able to stay in the New York area, so I’ve been able to study with her with some frequency. She is a remarkable teacher. She is the eternal student herself. She’s constantly reading, going to other people’s master classes to improve her own technique, so that’s interesting for me to have a constantly evolving tool bag.

When I have a lesson with her I always walk in singing one way and walk out singing healthier, clearer. So until that changes, I intend to stay with her. It’s also nice to work with somebody who knows my instrument so intimately. She has known it since I was 18. It’s been a great relationship and one that I hope will continue for a long time.

You’ve said Donna Anna [in Mozart’s Don Giovanni] is like putting a glove on. Is there one composer or piece of music where you just say, “This feels like the best fit right now”?

It’s a good question. I love singing Mozart. Mozart is most certainly the bellwether of a healthy instrument. Mozart is extremely challenging. At the same time [he’s] very well suited to my instrument. I’m really enjoying exploring [Richard] Strauss; that feels really great. I really enjoy both Strauss art song and Strauss opera. In San Francisco, I find all of Fauré [which she’s singing on May 29 at Davies Hall] to be very good for me; same with Poulenc. He’s a very clean composer. I find the composers that write in a way that’s very clean are good for me. My instrument is evolving, like everyone else’s, so we’ll see how long that lasts.

You tweeted recently, “Only Poulenc, only you.” Can you describe the experience when you are ecstatic and full of the love of music in that way?

I remember that morning very well, working on the Poulenc Gloria. I’ve sung quite a bit of his music and it’s almost like singing the blues. It has such structure within extreme emotion, which I find to be so stunning, and I was quite ecstatic while working on it because it makes you feel good, to listen to those colors, those sounds. Yeah, I had a big smile on my face when I was writing that tweet.

You’ve said of your early career that your attitude was to “never set goals; let’s see what happens.” Are you still that way about your career, now that you are scheduled ahead several years?

I am someone whose goal is to do interesting projects for as long as I can. I am scheduled several years out, but those are things that I chose to do that I’m very excited about. You never know what’s going to happen in life but you also never know what’s going to happen in the operatic world. It’s a very artistic world, it’s very subjective, so I try very hard to be very grateful for what I have in the moment. For example, this week I’m jumping in to sing Strauss’ Four Last Songs with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and so I’m really focused on being able to sing this music with this orchestra. And when I go to San Francisco, to be able to sing, with Dutoit, Poulenc’s music and Fauré’s music is going to be such an honor and such a gift. I try very hard to be in the moment and be grateful for what I have in the moment.

You’ve said that you almost transferred out of Juilliard couple of times. What was affecting you at that point that made you feel that way?

The lifestyle of an artist was something I never aspired to. I grew up being a normal kid. I was captain of the basketball team and cheerleading squad and French club, and an honors student. I was very interested in a lot of different things. So for someone like me to go to a liberal arts college would have been a great idea. I would have been able to continue to explore many different fields and continue to evolve that way. When I went to Juilliard, I was focusing on one thing, and one thing that takes a tremendous amount of work and a tremendous amount of focus, and I didn’t know if I really wanted to do it. I doubted myself, absolutely, to know whether or not that was what I wanted.

Mozart is most certainly the bellwether of a healthy instrument. … At the same time very well suited to my instrument.

Juilliard really supported me in finding ways to continue to reach out to other fields. For example, they let me do an exchange program with Columbia [University], where I took several classes. They let me sing in composers’ classes, they let me be an accompanist for collaborative piano auditions, they let me take classes in the humanities, they let me explore and open my eyes to this whole world I didn’t know existed. And when they allowed me to do that, they showed me actually what being an artist is; that really ignited something in me to want to do it. What we do is a job, but it also feels so good, so fun, and it feels like you’re expressing yourself and something from the composer, and that’s a gift. And so, in a way, I was thinking that couldn’t possibly be a career path.

You say that you were a “normal kid” but it sounds like you were a very high-achieving “normal” kid. You weren’t just on the basketball team, you were the captain; you weren’t just taking French, it was honors French; and your brother worked for President Obama and now works for the State Department.

He entered the White House the same month I made my Met debut. For my parents, sitting on their front porch in Alabama, I’m sure they had quite the conversation that month!

I’m sure that parents everywhere would like to know: What did they put in your breakfast cereal when you guys were growing up?

[Laughs] The thing about my parents, they have this mentality that it’s important to do something; it’s important to be engaged with the community, with your workplace, with yourself. But at the same time, they were not on the warpath to have us do particular jobs. They, as the Huntsville community as a whole, tend to have this mentality that it’s not that important what you do, but that you do something.

There is a rich cultural heritage in Huntsville. Tell me about Twickenhamfest.

I started Twickenhamfest with my friend bassoonist Matthew McDonald, when we had just finished school and we were hungry for experience. We were talking and we thought about doing it in New York or Chicago, but these [local] people had been so supportive of us growing up, we wanted to do something to thank them. So we called our friends and asked them to come stay with us and to come for free, to stay in our houses and eat our mothers’ cooking, which was not hard, and they all did. To a person, they all came to perform! Through a little house party to raise money for travel expenses, it began. It was shocking to us, the community response. We went from having 20 to 40 people to having 1,200 people last year.

What we do is a job, but it also feels so good, so fun, and it feels like you’re expressing yourself and something from the composer, and that’s a gift.

I wasn’t able to find much out about your personal life in my research. Did I just not do my research well this time, or are you a very private person, and can you tell us a little bit about your home and family life?

I am quite private, and I’m glad to hear you weren’t able to learn a whole lot. I have a really wonderful network of close friends who have been my bedrock through these past crazy years, and it has been crazy. I’m very happy. I’m not married but I’m also very happily not married, so that’s good. There’s not a whole lot I’d like to say.

Your career is doing so well in the U.S. Do you want to sing more abroad, or are things going so well in the U.S. that you don’t feel that need? You are returning to Japan this summer.

As we chatted about earlier, I never had an idea in my head about how I wanted my career to go. A lot of people go to Europe to make a career, and I feel very fortunate to have been able to make a career here in the U.S. and be close to home. Friends and family come visit frequently, and that’s been really wonderful. At the same time, I’ve been able to go to Barcelona and be able to explore places I never would have gone otherwise. So I’m just excited to see where this goes.

The thing for me about both of these pieces are the colors in the music. The sound worlds that they create are just incredible.

What can people expect from the upcoming concert in San Francisco?

The thing for me about both of these pieces are the colors in the music. The sound worlds that they create are just incredible. The Poulenc [Gloria] is something people will be quite taken with, because of its depth and structure. I find it to be very deeply moving, and it’s so rarely done. And the Fauré Requiem is one of those Requiems where you’re almost content by the end of it, and I get to sing the “Pie Jesu,” asking to grant us peace and rest; it is so peaceful, and it is a very peaceful way to look at a very intense time of life and death — a very difficult transition. You think of Verdi’s Requiem or Mozart’s Requiem, where there are many fiery moments, expressing anger or high, intense emotions; the moments in the Faure Requiem are intense in a very different way. There is a sense of peace throughout the whole piece that I find quite unique.

Lisa Houston is a soprano and writer from Berkeley. This season she will sing Beethoven’s “Ah Perfido!” with the Kensington Symphony Orchestra.