Opera star sings chamber music
In October and November, Susanna Phillips sang the title role in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. So what is a rising star of an opera singer doing at a Chamber Music Milwaukee concert at UWM Wednesday evening (Jan. 25)?
“I’m always looking for the chance to sing chamber music,” Phillips said, in an interview Tuesday at the UWM Zelazo Center, where the concert will take place. “And to sing it with friends makes all the difference. I’ve known these guys a long time.”
The friends are clarinetist Todd Levy and horn player Gregory Flint, co-directors of Chamber Music Milwaukee; bassoonist Ted Soluri and guest pianist Brian Zeger. This will be Phillips’ third appearance with her Milwaukee friends and colleagues.
Flint, a music professor at UWM, and MSO principals Levy and Soluri all got to know Phillips when they played in the Santa Fe Opera orchestra and Phillips was a young apprentice there. They were in the pit when she returned to sing three major Mozart roles at the summer festival company. Zeger knew her when, too; he is director of the Institute for Vocal Arts at the Juilliard School, where Phillips, a native of Hunstville, Ala., went to school.
“I got to know Susanna when she was a 17-year-old freshman,” Zeger said. “I’ve seen her grow from a fledgling into the wonderful singer you see before you.”
Phillips is 30 now and on track to become an important singer. Major engagements in Europe and the U.S. await her this spring.
“For me, Lucia at the Lyric was a really big deal,” she said. “It was a huge learning experience and certainly at a different level. And to do it in Chicago was especially nice.”
Phillips spent two years as a Ryan Opera Center resident artist with the Lyric, a plum of an apprenticeship. Like Santa Fe, Chicago brought her back to sing a major role.
She almost did not go into music at all. Phillips just assumed that she would be a doctor. An annual culture trip to New York with her father put another idea in her head. When she was 15, he took her to Puccini’s Madama Butterfly at the Met.
“It was in Italian and I couldn’t understand the words, but I didn’t have to,” she said. “That music could convey meaning and emotion — that was a striking idea to me.”
So she started taking voice lessons “for fun” and applied to Juilliard “on a whim.”
“I didn’t decide to become a singer until I got to Juilliard,” she said. “I saw that I could have a life in art and culture without being a starving artist. I’m very academically inclined, and I like studying languages and culture and history and everything that goes with singing the pieces I sing.”
That inclination relates to the MCM program. She could have just sung a few arias she’s known since Juilliard days. Instead, the soprano has taken the opportunity to learn works new to her and to test out her mezzo — and even contralto — range and heft. Phillips said that she doesn’t expect her voice to fully mature for another five years.
“That’s the interesting thing,” she said. “It’s not all mapped out for you. This program is my mezzo fantasy.”
Her desire to make music with will all of her friends also drove the programming. She Googled “clarinet, soprano” and landed on Lori Laitman’s I Never Saw Another Butterfly, a 1996 cycle of six songs. It was originally for alto saxophone and voice, but Levy will play clarinet. She, Levy and Zeger will also do Parto, Parto, ma tu, ben mio, from Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito.
“There’s not that much music for soprano, bassoon and piano,” Phillips said, in dry understatement. But some digging yielded Ah! nos peines, an aria from Cherubini’s Médée, which comes with an elaborate bassoon obbligato.
Flint’s horn was easier to include; Schubert’s Auf dem Strom, for horn, voice and piano, is a staple of the repertoire. She and Zeger will end the program with a set of Richard Strauss songs.
“Susanna is very adventurous,” Zeger said. “And she’s such a good musician that it’s not that hard for her to learn new music.”
“I jump at the chance to sing chamber music,” Phillips said. “Whether I get paid or not and whether or not I know the music.”
In addition to the vocal music, Levy and Zeger will play Schumann’s Drei Romanzen and Zeger will join Flint in Vaclav Nelhybel’s Scherzo Concertante. This program begins at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 25, in the Zelazo Center, 2419 E. Kenwood Blvd., on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Tickets are $17 general/$12 seniors, faculty, staff and alumni/$10 students. Call the UWM Peck School of the Arts box office, 414 229-4308.