Reunion: Susan Larson

FRED COHN catches up with the iconoclastic soprano whose spirit of adventure made her a perfect fit for Peter Sellars's groundbreaking reexaminations of the opera canon.

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Larson as Cleopatra in the Sellars staging of Giulio Cesare at SUNY Purchase, 1985
© Beatriz Schiller 2012
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Photographed at home in Massachusetts in her painting studio by James Brueckner
© James Brueckner 2012
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Susan Larson as Sellars’s Queen of the Nile
© Beatriz Schiller 2012

If any singer embodied the radical spirit of Peter Sellars's early work, it was soprano Susan Larson. An extraordinarily alert and lively performer, Larson walked the aesthetic tightrope that Sellars had strung for his players, balancing irony and utter emotional commitment. 

New York operagoers encountered her in three groundbreaking Sellars stagings at the SUNY campus in suburban Purchase — GiulioCesare (1985), Così Fan Tutte (1986) and Le Nozze di Figaro (1988). The critical response at the time focused on the productions' updated settings — Cesare in an oil emirate; Così in a Cape Cod diner; Figaro in Trump Tower. But the anachronisms were just a jumping-off point for Sellars. Working closely with conductor Craig Smith and a tightly knit ensemble of singers, Sellars came up with fresh readings at every turn, revealing unexpected veins of melancholy, moral ambiguity and zany comedy. Even if you found yourself disagreeing with his interpretive insights, you couldn't help entering into a closer engagement with the works than you'd ever imagined possible. 

The singers, drawn from Boston's Emmanuel Music group, were as yet relatively unknown. For many of us, these productions offered a first look at Sanford Sylvan, James Maddalena and Lorraine Hunt. In their midst, Larson was a libidinous yet conscience-stricken Fiordiligi; a screwball Cleopatra who could nonetheless draw tears with "Piangerò la sorte mia"; a volcanically horny Cherubino, humping Susanna's bed during "Non so più." Her crystal-clear lyric soprano was not a lush instrument, but her singing was consistently alert and responsive, an aural equivalent of her buoyant stage presence.

Meeting Larson more than two decades later, I am struck by how these portrayals reflected her own personal qualities — especially her intelligence and her sense of fun. "If you picture a moldering grande dame all covered in cobwebs and piano scarves — fuggedaboudit," she e-mailed me before we met. Sure enough, her manner is much more typical of a bohemian of her generation (she was born in 1944) than of a retired diva. She is sharp, observant and more than occasionally raunchy. 

As Larson describes her childhood in New Rochelle, NY, it's clear that her latter-day high spirits have been hard-won. "My father was a salary man. He worked for Otis Elevator," Larson says. "He was incredibly frustrated in his work. He didn't want to be there, but in the '40s and '50s, that's what you did. You stayed there, because you had a wife and children to support, and you took it out on them." Her transformative moment came at the age of ten, when her grandmother took her to see Mary Martin in Peter Pan on Broadway. "I said, 'I wanna fly! I wanna sing!'" Larson relates. "I was ruined forever after." (She eventually did get her chance to "fly" — suspended on a crescent moon as she sang Cleopatra's "V'adoro, pupille.")

She pursued vocal studies, first at Baldwin Wallace University Conservatory of Music in Ohio, then at Indiana University. At both institutions, she ran afoul of the authorities. "I was a sass-mouthed, insubordinate, acting-out little person," she says. "At Indiana, one of the things against me on my record was 'forming an unauthorized ensemble.' Yeah, I got eight cellists together in a room, and we committed Villa-Lobos." 

Eventually Larson landed at New England Conservatory; she has remained in the Boston area ever since. She shared an apartment in Somerville with classmates who included Craig Smith and baritone Mark Baker. "It was a kind of salon — with potato chips and onion dip," she says. "All sorts of people would come over — [pianist] Russell Sherman, John Harbison. We'd play charades. When our spirits would get low, Craig would put on the Götterdämmerung duet with Nilsson — the world's loudest recording!" 

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As Fiordiligi to Janice Felty’s Dorabella at SUNY Purchase, 1986
© Beatriz Schiller 2012

Smith became choir master at Emmanuel Church in Boston, and in 1970 he founded Emmanuel Music — a collective of singers and instrumentalists who would perform a Bach cantata every Sunday. "It was pretty white-knuckles at the beginning," Larson says. "For a long time, the orchestra played for free. The choir was paid a pittance. Every Sunday was the last Sunday. But we were learning Bach, and Craig was learning Bach. It was like a bubble outside the realities of making a living as a musician. People knew that whatever horrible thing they had to do during the week, what we were doing there was very deep." 

Hunt was a violist in the orchestra, taking singing lessons on the side. "Nobody knew, 'til one day we hear her singing and — oh, God!" Smith, who died in 2007, served as spiritual leader as much as conductor. "He wasn't a gifted conductor," Larson says. "He was a wonderful pianist, but he never practiced. But he had that ability to get people to the heart of the matter, musically. And then I'd be so mad at him, because he didn't have any stick technique, or he wouldn't show up for rehearsals. But I was ravished by his ideas and his vision."

Larson moved in with molecular biologist James Haber in 1977; the pair got married in 1983. In 1979, Haber's young daughter came home one day raving about a production she'd just seen at Harvard — Sellars's puppet version of Wagner's Ring. "She said, 'It starts off with these maidens...,' and she just went on," Larson remembers. "And I said, 'Well, we should go.' It was so theatrical — a coup de théâtreevery five minutes. It made you weep. For the magic fire, he had these Christmas tree lights from the hardware store — the kind that go on and off. It'd leave people totally destroyed. And there was little Pete, a Harvard undergraduate at the time."

Larson told her husband that Sellars was "the best opera director in America" — a contentious statement, considering that her brother-in-law, John Haber, was himself an opera directorof note. Soon thereafter, in the summer of 1980, the Emmanuel crew was invited to perform Don Giovanni at the Monadnock Music Festival in Manchester, New Hampshire, and Larson roped Sellars into the process. It was his first full-scale opera production. She was Elvira, and Maddalena was the Don. The production was designed by Edward Gorey, and, Larson says, "People had fistfights over it." 

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Larson, in costume as Yum-Yum in Lyric Opera of Chicago’s 1983 Mikado, with Sellars and conductor Craig Smith
Courtesy Susan Larson

Back in Boston, Larson worked with Sellars in two Handel works — Saulstaged as a contemporary political allegory, and Orlandoset at Cape Canaveral. She was also the second-cast Yum-Yum in Sellars's Mikado at Lyric Opera of Chicago. "Nanki-Poo was a rock star with dark glasses. The Mikado showed up in a red Corvette," she says. "There were styrofoam heads rolling around. It was one belly-laugh after another. People complained that Peter had no respect for operatic tradition. But who cares? Everything's been done to The Mikado."

Working with Sellars made Larson reexamine the very nature of acting in opera. "Opera never looks real, so why look real?" she says. "He was coming up with these wild ideas, but they weren't so wild — it was going back to the musical text. I had studied the [Boris] Goldovsky method, where you never moved on the downbeat. People hated that about Peter — 'Mickey-Mousing,' they called it. But it was really choreography — wonderful business, or wonderful lack of business.

"He was good at getting people not to 'act,'" Larson says. "If you started indicating — 'Now I'm playing Orlando, who is going mad' — he'd call you on it. He wanted you in this sort of dream state. His gestural language helped you to do that, because it wasn't what people do when they're waiting for the bus. People were saying, 'Oh, you were sitting on the floor!' I'd say, 'Well, I needed the rest. I was happy to be there!'" 

In 1990, the troupe went to Europe to videotape the Purchase Mozart productions and Giulio Cesare for broadcast and a Decca release. It was a grueling process: they'd film each act in a day, running through it twice. The Cesare was taped in East Berlin just as the Wall was coming down. "The makeup lady was having trouble with my eyeliner," says Larson. "She was trembling — she didn't know whether she would have money in the bank. They were all terrified. We took them out for a party afterwards, where we got drunk and sang Bach chorales. Somewhere in Germany there are people who think that's what Americans do when they get drunk!"

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As Cherubino at SUNY Purchase in 1989 with James Maddalena (Count Almaviva), Frank Kelley (Basilio) and Jeanne Ommerle (Susanna)
© Beatriz Schiller 2012

The Mozart tapings took place in Vienna. At the Figaro session, Larson relates, "Leonard Bernstein swept in with his entourage, drunk out of his mind. Craig got horribly nervous, ran out, and went into the men's room to throw up. He came out green and pale and shaking — and conducted the worst performance of the Marriage of Figaro overture in the entire universe."

Smith was able to do a retake later. But still the Decca discs make unsatisfactory souvenirs of the original productions. The main problem is that Sellars served as his own video director, choosing the camera angles and supervising the editing. The results are fussy and disjunctive, with huge closeups and frequent cuts sabotaging the images that Sellars himself had so carefully constructed. "The cutting drove me absolutely wild," Larson says. "There isn't a through line in the whole thing. I'm glad that [in Cesare's"Da tempeste"] there's a permanent record of my crotch. A nice close-up, so everyone can see 'she has a crotch.' They were not good films. I was heavily invested emotionally — I thought this would be my permanent record. It was awful." She hasn't spoken to Sellars since. 

Soon after those sessions, paresis of the vocal cords brought Larson's singing career to an abrupt end. "My voice was like tissue-paper — you could stick a finger through it," she says. "Here I was, pre-menopausal and losing my voice. I had a real, genuine nervous breakdown." But she quickly regrouped. She started teaching ("I became kind of a voice technique geek") and — unusually for a performing musician — became a classical-music critic, writing for The Boston Globe. True to form, she raised hackles in her new role, drawing complaints from the Celebrity Series of Boston when she panned a Pinchas Zukerman concert. "He shat all over the Elgar Violin Concerto," she explains. 

Larson has since retired from both journalism and teaching. "I figured I could be doing all kinds of other stuff — learning to paint, reading Shakespeare plays, taking academic courses," she says. "Tell 'em she's reinvented herself as a sad old lady who takes classes." The characterization is inapt; in fact, Larson has turned to writing fiction. Her young-adult novel Sam (a Pastoral), the story of a preadolescent girl and her love for her horse, has just been published. She's also putting finishing touches on a Mozart-themed detective novel, which she describes as "very funny and very dirty."

But the Sellars years remain a high point — the period when she was a vital part of a team that felt it was "liberating opera." In retrospect, Larson says, "I've never had more fun in my life." spacer 


spacer "The Inquiring Mind" Peter Sellars on art, life, politics and opera (William R. Braun, February 2011)
spacer "Homeless in Boston" The soprano-turned-journalist examines the difficulties of presenting opera in Beantown (Susan Larson, September 1996)
spacer Video: Peter Sellars's Mozart triptych (Patrick J. Smith, December 1992)

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