Q & A: Soprano Susanna Phillips On Her Career Path From Alabama to the Big Stage

By Chris Ruel

Alabama-native, soprano Susanna Phillips will present an intimate evening of song on July 30, 2019 as part of the 2019 Mostly Mozart Festival. The recital will take place at the Stanley Kaplan Penthouse overlooking New York City and spotlights three female composers: Fanny Hensel, Alma Mahler, and Clara Schumann.

Phillips’ appearance is part of the festival’s “A Little Night Music” series in which performances occur after larger concerts at Lincoln Center’s Geffen Hall. The soprano likens her late-evening start to “coffee and dessert following a delicious dinner.”

While Phillips has sung at previous Mostly Mozart Festivals, her collaborator for the evening, pianist Myra Huang, will be making her festival debut. Phillips also performs regularly at the Met Opera with the 2019-2020 season marking her twelfth year of singing on the big stage.

OperaWire connected with Phillips regarding the festival recital and her career path as an artist.

OperaWire: Tell me about the repertoire you’ve chosen for the recital. The songs are written by three female composers; Fanny Hensel, Alma Mahler, and Clara Schumann. What influenced your choices?

Susanna Phillips: After considering lots of composers, Myra and I decided to highlight these three. Each had their own difficulties along the path to writing and publishing their music, and ultimately, each found their voice. We will explore this more specifically during the evening, but suffice it to say that every emotion will be readily on display.

OW: Of the pieces, is there one you find particular joy in performing?

SP: My favorite piece on the program is “Liebst du um Schönheit,” a Rückert poem set by Schumann. She sets the words clearly, without over-indulgence. Unafraid and with passion. That moves me.

OW: What excites you the most about the music?

SP: I have really loved exploring these pieces with Myra. Fanny, Alma, and Clara are fascinating women, each in their own way, and their music is colorful, witty, and soulful.

OW: You have worked with pianist Myra Huang, numerous times. Can you describe the chemistry between the two of you?

SP: Myra’s command of the texts of the songs she performs, her innate, graceful musicality, her investment in the singers with whom she collaborates, and her elegance of tone only begin to describe why she is one of the best collaborative pianists in the world today. Singing with her is a complete joy.

OW: Switching gears, tell me a little bit about your career path. What was your first encounter with opera?

SP: I first encountered opera as a child. Classical music played in our house throughout my childhood. Though I grew up in Alabama, my parents strove to expose my brother and me to the arts and took us to museums and music halls as much as possible. Also, my father, a doctor, vocationally played chamber music with friends. So I got to know the piano parts of many sonatas and trios very well listening to him practice after dinner!

OW: At what point did you decide to become a professional singer?

SP: I tried lots of things throughout high school, but never really considered a career in music until I went to Juilliard. There I got to explore so many facets of being a musician and loved being a part of the artistic community. After I graduated, I jumped in with both feet and haven’t looked back since. It’s certainly not a conventional life and not a life that I ever could have imagined for myself. But I’m so grateful because through music I have gotten to meet so many wonderful people and see the world.

OW: In 2010, you received the Met Opera’s Beverly Sills Artist Award. What was that like?

SP: Receiving the Beverly Sills Award was a life highlight and honor for me. I listened to Beverly Sills as a child, and her recordings still hold top billing on my playlists.

OW: “La Bohéme’s” Musetta is a signature role of yours. What aspect of the character do you find most interesting?

SP: That was my first part after graduating from the Ryan Opera Center, so it was my first role in my professional journey. Thank you, Madison Opera! And then I made my Met debut in that role and have sung it many times there. Singing Musetta always brings a smile to my face! She is joyful and fiery, a woman who loves living life. So much fun!

OW: During the 2018-2019 Met season, you had two role debuts: Micaela in “Carmen,” and Donna Elvira in “Don Giovanni.” What drew you to those characters?

SP: Micaela is wonderful, especially musically. Her music is soulful, warm, good-hearted. It feels like a balm to sing it. Donna Elvira is a fascinating character to explore. Singing Mozart is always a joy for me, and she is certainly no exception. But dramatically she is so much fun to play.

OW: If you had a piece of advice to pass along to artists who are in the early stages of their careers, what would it be?

SP: Advice is hard because everyone’s experience (especially in this business) is vastly different. I guess I’d suggest trying as hard as you can to get to know yourself and to stay true to that self. Be kind, be prepared, and be open. Who knows what can happen? Oh, and always make sure that your wig is secure. No one looks good in a wig cap!


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