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Born in Philadelphia, Susanne Mentzer was introduced to the world of opera as a teenager. For over twenty years, the Juilliard alumna has performed leading roles at the MET, La Scala, l'Opéra de Paris and the San Francisco Opera. A former professor at Rice University, Mentzer now lives in the Bay-area. She contributes regularly to the Huffington Post. Below is the transcript of our October 2, 2012 conversation with mezzo-soprano Susanne Mentzer.
EH: Are you from a musical family ?
Mentzer: Growing up, we never had a piano in the house until I was maybe fifteen or so. And one day, my parents decided that they would get one for me, never bothering to ask if I wanted one (laughs). I remember coming home thinking, ‘Well, I’m never going to play that thing’ (laughs). Well, they found an ancient piano teacher for me, from the small town, and it was so humiliating as a teenager having to play recitals with kids who were just three or four years-old! My mother was actually an amateur singer who did a lot of choral music, and my father dabbled a bit with the guitar. Of course, there was also church music, as I was in the church choir.
After about six months of trying the flute, I started getting into the cello in sixth grade. I was supposed to be part of the junior high orchestra, but we moved to a town with no orchestra at all. Who knows where my life would have gone if we had stayed ? (laughs) By the time I reached college, I didn’t know much about reading music, theory or anything music-related at all. I had a lot of ground to make up. And it is so difficult for singers sometimes, because many don’t have the early ear-training that instrumentalists have. Our voices don’t even develop until the senior high-school or first year of college.
EH: There are many paths towards the making of a career. How does one balance family life and the requirements of an international singing career ? What are some things students are not told in music schools ?
Mentzer: That’s a good question. I don’t think anything can really prepare you for it. Nowadays, it’s a little bit easier with Skype and e-mail. The biggest thing I was not prepared for was the amount of time I had to spend alone on the road. Whether you have a family or not – I mean, I had a son and had to start leaving him at home because he had school, his friends, his own community, really - it’s very difficult to keep relationships going. I remember back then, the long-distance phone bill was as expensive as the mortgage!
My marriage broke-up partly because I was away so much. My ex-husband, who’s still my really good friend, I think he didn’t have the heart to ask me not to sing anymore. You’re never prepared for the heartbreak, of leaving the people you love. I would come home and often try to not disrupt anything, which is a piece of advice I received from the daughter of another singer. Looking back, I remember being emotionally distraught a lot, because you do have this talent, you have to make a living, you’re trying to get into the right mindset as a musician, and you end up compartmentalizing a lot of your life like that.
EH: What advice would you give to aspiring singers who have suffered numerous rejections at auditions ?
Mentzer: A couple of things, actually. There’s quite a difference between auditions and competitions. I never won a competition, or a big prize, for that matter. Singers should never let that deter them. It doesn’t mean that you’re not going to have a career, that you’re a bad singer, etc. It just means that somebody else showed up that day and they like them better. In terms of auditions, it’s hard because there are so many people out there singing. But everybody has to have their own inside-voice, their own feeling about music that cannot be compared to anyone else’s. You just have to show what you do well and find what that is. And you need to trust the ears of your friends, your teacher, your manager or your spouse. The one thing that often happens - and it’s bad - is that you say to yourself, ‘Well, I want to sing something that’s emotionally more dramatic,’. Every time I did that, I never got the part. But whenever I went in with my perky aria, I’d get the job. So I had to listen to the people around me, people who told me that if I sang this, I would get the job. In my career, I barely did anything in America until after doing some singing in Europe. Maybe they didn’t understand my voice, or it just wasn’t right for smaller companies. You need to have the right ears hearing you as well.
EH: Are people as touched and enamored with the art form as they once were ?
Mentzer: I don’t know if there’s such a huge difference in vocal technique. To really do the best job you can, you really have to pace yourself every night and not be asked to stand on your head, flapping your arms (laughs). It is such a physical activity – and I have great respect for the people singing today – but in terms of the historic voices, they were so well cared for! They really took care of their instruments in a different way and they did not bend their voices to the acting. They acted through their instruments. It’s very important to remember that there is music involved in all of this and that it is the music that carries the emotion.
I think it’s easy as performing artists to get carried away with the acting, which is great for video – it’s what people want to see - but it might hurt in the long run for the state of the instrument. You can’t do too much, and you need to be more patient and circumspect in preparation. There is something to be said about seasoned artists. Early in my career I was singing with people who were twenty years older than me, like Joan Sutherland. I had to pinch myself that I was singing with these people, but they definitely put their voices first, and that’s a very important thing to truly understand.
EH: What were your impressions of Ms. Sutherland over the years ?
Mentzer: She was so generous and kind to me, just a lovely person who was not demanding at all. She was a dear, and she worried about me during my pregnancy. It was actually a long shot for me to sing with her, the first time singing Anna Bolena (in the role of Jane Seymour) in Houston, and she had them put in a bow after the second duet. She just ushered me on stage, and I’ll never forget it. She also sent me Christmas cards until she died.
EH: Which singers of the past have made the greatest impression on you, perhaps influencing your craft ? Whose recordings do you find yourself returning to constantly ?
Mentzer: You know, I actually don’t listen very much to recordings. I do love Christa Ludwig, but I rarely listen to opera. I just never got into it. But I actually love listening to the Three Tenors (laughs). I was just blown away by how good they were. I’ve done some stuff with Domingo and there’s something very thrilling, just standing there next to him while he’s looking at you, singing his heart out! I just think to myself, ‘O God, I hope I don’t distract him!’. I remember also asking Joan Sutherland, before doing a duet together, ‘Do you want me to look at you ? Should I look away ?’. She would often look at my throat or my shoulder while I was singing, so as not to be distracted.
EH: I’m curious to know, what is the single greatest musical moment you’ve experienced, either on stage or in the audience ?
Mentzer: That’s a very difficult question! There are a few, actually. Singing the Mahler Second Symphony is a mind-blowing experience. There isn’t that much to sing, but that last chorus at the end of the first movement is so thrilling. The energy of everyone involved is unforgettable.
I also had to sing after 9/11, about two weeks or so after, and I sang with the New York Philharmonic. It was really just an incredibly emotional time. It meant so much more, everybody was in pain, and it was unbelievable to experience that.
Otherwise, every now and then, you’ll be in a scene and just get chills. I have to say, the best times are often when I sing onstage with the orchestra. You’re standing pretty much next to the conductor on stage, and the amount of energy coming from the orchestra… if everyone could just sit there and understand what it’s all about, you know? It’s too bad not everybody can do that, but it is a totally different experience. The floor feels like it’s vibrating (laughs).
EH: You’ve taught many talented singers over the years. Please describe your personal feelings about teaching and mentorship. What are some of the most common pitfalls that young singers struggle with ?
Mentzer: The pitfall is that all students come in wanting it right away. But you have to keep reminding them that it will take years before some of the things will click. There are so many layers of learning, and even for me, I’ll sometimes think to myself, ‘Oh, that’s what my teacher meant!’. I think that students can tend to over-practice, cementing bad habits, or they’re singing the wrong repertoire. Quite often in college, if you have a big voice, you might be pegged to sing the older-lady or older-man roles. You also have to learn to say ‘I’m tired, I need to stop’ sometimes. It is so important to communicate. You can only sing full-out for a limited time, so a lot of it is mental studying, going over details, and planning what needs to be done. Patience is so important in this respect.
EH: Many teachers isolate the technical component, the singing aspect of the craft. At what age did you begin thinking about the problem of vocal technique ? And in your experience, how does one best prepare for the role of the singing actor ?
Mentzer: There is a time to focus on technique. For me, it wasn’t until I got out of college that I realized that I didn’t really know how to sing (laughs). I got pretty far, but then I got stuck. I was maybe twenty-three when I thought of my technique. I did a professional tour, singing every night. Then I did auditions and I wasn’t getting any work. I was reading the same comments over and over. Everything I was doing was muscular, and I didn’t want to give this up. So my teacher and I worked very hard, and it paid off eventually.
I didn’t realize just how much I learned until I started teaching. I began to see things in my students that I had dealt with. So much of learning is often the undo-ing of bad habits. I used to force everything, and so I had to learn the hard way. Everybody is different, however, there are the basics of relaxation (laughs).
Sometimes, you have to learn to sing without any emotion a few times, then to go back with the text and the phrasing, etc. If you do it all at once, you will tire yourself out. I always tell my students to work on things that they love working on. If you don’t like that piece, don’t do it! You must identify with the work, and it must be organic. You can learn all the different periods, but singing must be enjoyable. A lot of singing will come from experience, and as a teacher, my job is to give them the skills and knowledge to build on. We want them to be free, to discover things on their own. I do a lot of work on technique and breathing.
EH: For aspiring singers, what advice would you give to those who are between the stages of college and young artist programs ?
Mentzer: After undergrad, I think it’s good to take a year or two off – unless you’re extremely precocious and talented – because your body needs time to grow up a bit. By the time you get to grad school, you will have had the time to grow. It’s all about how you sing. You want to make the very most of your grad school experience, and learn as much as you can when you’re ready.
Of course, after grad school is a tricky situation. It doesn’t mean that you have to be in a young artist program, but exposure is quite important. Summer programs are great for these: Santa Fe, Santa Barbara, Merola, etc., these are all great opportunities and people will hear you.
EH: With opera companies closing every year, what are your feelings about the future of opera ? Does it have a better chance of surviving than, say, the symphony orchestra ?
Mentzer: I’m very concerned about opera and the symphony orchestra. It’s a very limited audience. People can’t seem to get past the elitism of it, and it’s a real bummer. I think what Peter Gelb has done at the MET is wonderful for the promotion of the art form. We’re such a visually oriented society now, and I think opera requires too much attention for too long. People don’t have the patience for it anymore. I wonder sometimes if it might help if I just went out and performed in my blue-jeans. Other times, I wonder if I should just go into an entirely different field.
EH: Auditions are no longer just about how well one can sing and act, but also about aesthetics and one’s physical appearance. Is the HD generation detrimental to the quality of singers that we’re hearing on stage ?
Mentzer: I think that we’re not hearing all the singers that are out there. There are some singers being eliminated and others who are forced to lose weight, and as a result, their voices. I’m not saying that you need to be very hefty, but you also can’t be a string-bean. I’ve judged at competitions where people have turned a blind eye to talent because of the way a singer looked.
EH: Outside of music, what other art forms have influenced your craft ? For the sake of development, how important is it for aspiring artists to be immersed in these ?
Mentzer: I think life experience, to have the right perspective, is the most important. You need to understand the text, and the older you get, the understanding of it changes. I personally think that you need to be a part of society as well. You cannot just be a ‘me, me, me, me’ person. Sometimes, that’s difficult for the young musician, who’s working on their instrument, trying to get roles or auditions, they have a career to think about, etc. But I think the more you do things for the greater good – even singing to help raise money –it will help you. History is a great thing to study, especially in Europe. I think too many students often have no idea what the poet or the composer was going through, and these things can definitely make things more interesting for the interpreter. One also needs to realize that at the end of the day, singing is not brain surgery.
EH: In the end, with governments cutting funding to the arts, what is the importance and purpose of performance art ?
Mentzer: I think the audience needs to be moved. The intimacy of performance art is very important. There are very few intimate things left in today’s society, and this is necessary. It is a reflection of emotion. I say to my students that we sing because we’re emotional. You know, any kind of art form is a reflection of society and humanity. People need to see these things, to ponder them over time. It is also a communal experience, being together. This is much more important than sitting alone in your living room and watching a video.
I’m frustrated and sad about the state of the arts. It’s a domino effect from the economy. I wish people didn’t feel that arts should be the first thing to go. In the 1960s, people used to perform in amateur groups. It wasn’t about making a living out of it; it was about the joy of performing, of collaborating at any level. That, in turn, is your audience for the future.
EH: Susanne, thank you so much for taking the time today.
Mentzer: Thank you! It was a pleasure speaking with you, Elijah.