Hello, Opera Fans! This is my first post of the New Year, so a belated Happy New Year to everyone out there! In June of last year, world famous mezzo-soprano, Susanne Mentzer was nice enough to answer some of my questions about her career. Below are my questions and her detailed responses”
Q: How did you first get into opera and classical music?
A: I was a teenager with a loud voice. It started to show maturity when I was a senior in HS and I started taking voice lessons. My mom suggested I be an usher at Santa Fe Opera that summer and I knew the cute
guys from school parked cars so I thought it might be fun. I did not expect to like opera but I was amazed by how much I liked it and how interesting the singers were, and they were attractive. I went to college to be a music therapist at The University of the Pacific. The summer of my sophomore year I went to Aspen Music Festival and School and was encouraged to go to Juilliard and be a total voice major.
I also sang a lot in church choir and did a lot of folk music with a couple friends in HS so singing was a part of my life but not classical music. I did take piano lessons for about 5 years.
Q: Do you have a dream role or any exciting projects coming up?
A:I wanted but never got to sing the role of Charlotte in “Werther “ but now I am too old.
I am looking forward to singing more new works- creating a role. But I have nothing scheduled. Would love to do more recording but it takes money!
Q: You spend a lot of your time teaching. What do you believe are the characteristics of a good vocal teacher and why is it important?
A: I have taught at university level for 12 years although I am not now affiliated with a school, much as I would like to be. Any teacher needs to be a good listener and find the right semantics that make sense to the student. It is a bit like being a doctor and it takes a while to try to figure out what a student is doing to produce a sound. I work primarily on vocal technique but I can also coach. I think the teacher has to help the student look for personal best and keep growing, and also had to earn the trust of the student. It is important to have high expectations but also know that singers are only human and always a work in progress. Life sometimes gets in the way. Teaching in a university a professor has a responsibility to reach certain milestone with the student for them to be able to graduate.
I also teach privately which is more tailored to what a student needs and hopes to accomplish as it is their time that they are paying for and I want them to get their money’s worth.
Communication is also VERY important and the student needs to tell me how something feels and if it is problematic, etc. They also need to put in their own words what they have learned.
Q: You are an avid blogger and writer. Do you believe that it is important for a singer to maintain these connections with their audience and if so, why?
A: I think it is important for any self-employed artist to use all avenues of communication to reach the public. I do not really write for that reason, though, as my career is so established as a singer. Personally, I like being able to share some of my experiences. Young artists absolutely need a website and to post audio and video clips. It might just get a foot in the door.
Q: You sing such a wide spectrum of roles. What kinds of separate vocal elements do you try to bring to each one, and are some harder for you than others?
A: It is such an organic experience that the vocalism comes from the character. It is an interesting question. Generally I do not plan what I am going to do. I need to see who the other singing actors and react to what they do and bring to their characters.
I do like to examine the context of the composition of a piece, and know about the life of the librettists and composer. Then I look at a score as a road map and try to get into the composer/librettist’s heads to determine why they wrote what they did and find the dramatic messages that are there. This is the difference between straight theater and opera. Sometimes the meaning is in the music and sometimes not. The timing is definitely dictated in opera.
I do need roles that have an arc to the character in terms of what they experience emotionally, otherwise I have a tough time portraying them.
Q: What is the most important thing for a very young singer to learn? (Melinda McLain: @revgirrl)
A: It is hard to single out one thing.
- Never settle for status quo- always look to improve
- A good career takes time. Be patient and learn all you can.
- You have a to learn a good technique to sing safely and for many years. You can only get away with your young talent for so long and need to have the technique to fall back on.
- Always be prepared and know the notes and the meaning- not just the gist – of what you are singing.
- You will get many opinions. Try to find three people who you will always trust- like a spouse, teacher and manager- and listen to them only. You will never please everyone, as the sound of the human voice is very subjective to the listener.
- Be yourself. Do not try to be another singer, ever.
- Be flexible.
- Keep your sense of humor.
- Stay humble.
Q: How is the Carlisle Floyd project coming? (Corinne Rydman: @corinnerydman)
A: Thanks for asking! It is going quite well. We recorded and are waiting of the final edit. I wrote the content for the booklet and it is being formatted. I also got the photography done.
I am so excited to be able to share Carlisle’s songs with the world. It should be out toward the end of the summer.
(Side note: “Letter to the World: Susanne Mentzer sings songs by Carlisle Floyd” is available here.
Q: Do you feel that American classical music is overlooked, and what is its overall merit to you as an artist? (Tyler Barton: @tylerbarton27)
A: I am not sure if you mean all American classical music or vocally related music. I happen to adore chamber music and am very interested in new works.
Whether it is opera or chamber music or song, it has to be singable and have a strong story/libretto. I think also the composer needs to workshop the piece and consider editing.
I really have been following what is going on- “Gospel of Mary M” in San Francisco, “Champion” at Opera Theatre St. Louis, and “Oscar” at Santa Fe Opera. I think this is amazing to have three controversial subjects approached and that it will draw a more youthful audience. I wish I could see them all.
It is expensive to produce opera and there are many talented composers who I hope will be given opportunities to write for the voice. I commissioned a song cycle from a DMA student at Rice University in 2010, which I was happy to do.
Q: Do you have any words of advice to young singers who may be reading this?
A: Try not to be to too defensive or judgmental but also be open to feedback from people who know what they are doing. My first year at Juilliard, my teacher told me I should just go home. Of course I was shocked but I realized it was not the teacher for me and changed studios. So you need to keep your own integrity. Top talent always rises to the top so hang in there. By the same token, never be arrogant and all knowing because you always have something to learn. Some people’s careers launch quickly but others take time. You have no idea what lies ahead. Just absorb all you can.
Photos courtesy of Marty Umans and Ms. Mentzer’s web site.