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Practical Perspective

Soprano SUSANNA PHILLIPS, who sings Rosalinde in Die Fledermaus at the Met this month, has a very well-ordered outlook on life. by Louise T. Guinther. Photographs by Dario Acosta. 

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Photographed by Dario Acosta
Necklace and Earrings by Seaman Schepps
Makeup: Affan Malik; Hair: Jackson Stewart
“It’s so nice to play somebody who’s kind of a firecracker.”
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Photo by Dario Acosta
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Phillips as Rosalinde in Act II of Die Fledermaus at the Met, 2013
© Johan Elbers

SUSANNA  PHILLIP's high-school guidance counselor in Huntsville, Alabama, was the first to suggest that she apply to a conservatory. “I said to him, ‘I am not going to the conservatory, and I am not going to New York City,’” she recalls. “It wasn’t that I didn’t want to be a musician, it was that I didn’t know any professional musicians. It wasn’t a part of my world—it wasn’t something I had even considered. And he said, ‘You know, we don’t know if you’re any good, so if you get in, you’ll at least know you were good enough.’ So I applied, and I got in to Juilliard, and I thought, ‘It’s a lot easier to transfer out of that place than it is to transfer in, so why not give it a try?’”

That effort has yielded bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Juilliard, victories at Operalia and the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions and a burgeoning Met career that has ranged from Puccini to Offenbach to Mozart. Our interview, in September, comes at a time of high anticipation for Phillips: her wedding to David Huntington, a New York-based lawyer, is less than a week away. Right now, the perky, articulate soprano is speaking to me, somewhat breathlessly, via cell phone en route to yet another prewedding appointment. In spite of such a major distraction, she takes time to consider her answers with care. Her words and demeanor suggest a grounded young woman, confident in her strengths but aware that the human voice is always a work in progress.

Phillips describes her own instrument—a creamy, vibrato-rich middle register capped by shining high notes—as “certainly a lyric soprano. But,” she adds, “I think that many voices can sing many roles. I believe a mezzo-soprano can sing Contessa, and I believe a soprano can sing Cherubino. It depends on the type of voice and how the piece is cast around it. I’ve certainly sung a lot of Mozart, but I’m open to exploring many different kinds of things.” She mentions that she is particularly looking forward to singing Gounod’s Juliette at Lyric Opera of Chicago in February and March, and she places the Marschallin, without hesitation, at the top of her list of dream roles. “She’s such a fascinating woman, and musically it’s incredible. To be able to sing that trio, with anybody, would be an incredible experience.”

Phillips is at the Met this month for Rosalinde in Die Fledermaus, a role she first sang as an undergraduate at Juilliard. “I love being able to explore different kinds of personalities.So often I play the ingénue or the lamenting wife, and it’s just so nice to play somebody who’s kind of a firecracker and throws in a witty line every once in a while—and is also a little bit conniving, which is kind of fun, to be honest.” Phillips likes the current Met production’s take on her character. “Many times, Rosalinde can be played where she’s the butt of the joke just as much as Eisenstein,” she says. “But she is certainly involved in the conspiratorial side of things. I think her flirtation with Alfred is just that. She really loves Eisenstein and is going to stay with him, and I think they’re perfectly matched!”

The subject turns to singers who have inspired her. “You may be surprised,” she says, “but somebody that I admire a lot is Dolly Parton. She’s a real businesswoman, a kind person, and she really focuses on the positive of any situation that she’s in. And she’s also a trailblazer. It’s very difficult to stay current and involved in the music scene for such a long period of time. She’s a goodhearted woman, smart as a whip, and doesn’t pretend to be what she’s not, and she’s an excellent musician. She has carried herself with dignity and grace and has given back to her community tremendously.”

Finding her own way to give back is clearly high on Phillips’s list of priorities. She is cofounder of Twickenham Fest, established to serve the community that nurtured her. “Six years ago, I got together with my friend—actually, a guy I used to baby-sit, named Matthew McDonald, who’s principal bassoonist of the Rochester Philharmonic—and started a festival in Huntsville for our hometown, because they’ve been extraordinarily supportive. When I made my Met debut [as Musetta in 2008], I had 450 people fly up from Alabama over the course of the run. It was a tremendous show of support—they’re an incredible community. So we decided to start this for them and bring our good friends down there to sing and to play chamber music. We just finished our sixth season, and every year, our audiences are growing. The first year, we had two concerts with fifteen people at each one, and this year we had five concerts with 500 people at each one, so we’ve been doing a good job!”

As if her September wedding were not enough extracurricular excitement for one year, the high-energy Phillips was eagerly anticipating her first time running in the New York City Marathon in November. “I called [Met press director] Sam Neuman, and I said, ‘I’m interested in running in the Marathon, and I did not get into the lottery—does the Met have a team?’ And he actually was able to find me a bib! I’m not planning to run fast,” she adds with a laugh. “I’m certainly not going to win the marathon, but I will finish, and that’s the goal.” spacer 

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