Sound Bites spotlights up-and-coming singers and conductors in the world of opera.

Sound Bites: Susannah Biller

by BRIAN KELLOW

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Photographed by Dario Acosta in New York
Makeup and hair by Affan Malik / dress: Betsy Johnson Couture
© Dario Acosta 2013
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Soprano Susannah Biller, Selena in Dolores Claiborne at SFO
© Dario Acosta 2013

Susannah Biller is about to bring her high-flying soprano to one of the meatiest roles in any new opera in some time — Selena St. George, the tormented, driven, in-denial daughter in Tobias Picker and J. D. McClatchy's Dolores Claiborne, based on Stephen King's novel, which has its world premiere this month at San Francisco Opera. Selena has spent years blaming her mother (played by Dolora Zajick) for the death of her father, while blocking out memories of her sexual abuse at his hands. "Selena's story is a survival story," says Biller. "That's what drew me to this opera. You hear about this kind of thing all the time — a mother killing the husband, because he's been doing God-knows-what to the kids. A mother's love is the strongest but the deadliest. And yet, Selena says, 'I loved both of my parents, but I never asked my mother to save me from my father.' In some ways, it's as if she wanted to save her father — it's sick as all get-out — but she was so young, she didn't know what she was doing. And then she has the mea culpa, the beating up of herself for life because of the choices she's made."

After Biller won the role of Selena, she got a call from Tobias Picker. "You're the girl I wanted from the beginning," she recalls Picker saying. "[SFO general director] David Gockley wanted me to write an aria for the character, but I didn't want to until I knew you were going to be the girl doing the part." "That touched me," says Biller.

Biller, the daughter of a psychiatrist and psychologist, grew up in Cleveland, Tennessee, a small town near Chattanooga, wanting to be a Broadway singer. But she came under the spell of opera, partly through attending performances featuring her aunt, mezzo Wendy White. "My aunt gives me advice every day. Sometimes I want to say, 'Could you just please shut up and be my aunt?' We are cut from the same cloth. We do not have poker faces, and we tell it like it is. I love her very much." 

An alum of San Francisco Opera's Merola and Adler programs, Biller speaks of the privilege of learning from high-level professionals such as Sheri Greenawald and Warren Jones. At San Francisco's Opera Parallèle, she had the opportunity to perform the challenging role of Daisy Buchanan in John Harbison's Great Gatsby. "It was difficult to find a way to make Daisy a character who's not an airhead. She's a very smart girl. And, as a Southerner, I loved saying 'Loyville' correctly, rather than 'Louis-ville." I hope I get to do it again. Tonally, it's full of tricky, interlocking harmonies — a place that you wouldn't drive through. You'd drive around it. But, as with any contemporary work, take the chance. Drive through. See what it has to offer." spacer

BRIAN KELLOW

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Current Issue: August 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 2