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Q&A With Susanna Phillips

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This article is adapted from one that appeared in San Francisco Classical Voice.

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Susanna Phillips (B.M. ’03, M.M. ’04, voice) 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. The Alabama native made her way to Juilliard 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. 

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, 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. It’s been a great relationship and one that I hope will continue for a long time. 

You’ve said [singing 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”?

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 find all of Fauré 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. 

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.

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, 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.

Copyright © 2014, San Francisco Classical Voice. Used by permission.

Phillips’s schedule is packed; locally her Metropolitan Opera roles this season are Musetta in La Bohème in December and Antonia in Les Contes d’Hoffmann in February and March. For more information, go to susannaphillips.com.

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