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  • Writer's pictureScott M Williamson

Susannah production notebooks (cont.)

Susannah Production Notebooks | April 14 | Rehearsal Day 4

One of the scenes fro Jimmy Ray Ward's set model, designed by the artist

Good interview this morning on The Mountain 101.5 – great to have Danielle in to talk about her experiences, including a career path which has arced from VT and the Opera Roanoke chorus to the MET. She described her debut of Susannah as a “dream role”, and I compared its stature in the opera business to a cult-favorite album within the commercial music industry. Our host, Rob Ruthenberg joked that our premiere production of Susannah must be “indulgent.” If it is “indulgent” to fill holes in our 40-something-year-old repertoire by programming lesser-known (but no less great!) classics like Susannah, then we’ll chalk it up to a vibrant artistic mission, and the genuine faith we put in our friends and patrons. It may also be a “risky” choice. And every single one of our Board members who has seen Susannah previously has helped us lead the charge for this great work of the American musical stage. They’ve helped make “converts” among their colleagues unfamiliar with the work.

Be sure to check out our social media pages, especially our “Reel Opera in the Star City” video project, thanks to a grant from Opera America’s “Building Opera Audiences” fund...

Susannah is the most popular American opera after Porgy and Bess, and that pairing is instructive in another way. A contemporary of Bernstein (1918-1990), Menotti (1911-2007), and Weill (1900-1950), Floyd might have presented his “musical drama” on Broadway, rather than at New York City Opera. Each of his older colleagues saw their dramatic works move between opera houses and commercial theatres, just as Porgy had. Its from a time when the boundaries between American "musical theatre" and American "opera" were porous...

What is indulgent (we call it "luxury casting" - another thing Opera Roanoke has in common with the Harry Potter films...) is having three leads like Danielle Talamantes, Zachary James and Matthew Vickers, each making their role debuts as Susannah, Reverend Blitch, and Sam, respectively. It is indulgent to have MET Meastro Steven White back in the pit for his first Susannah. Another exciting milestone for us is the fact that six current and former Apprentice Artists are singing principal roles. Brooke Tolley, Adam McAllister, Christie Massey, Jason Nichols, Molly Cox, and Rob Zahm are joined by a trio of esteemed colleagues (who all are friends – another blessing in this “business” – working with your friends!). Toby Newman returns to OR, this time as a stern matriarch, and like everyone else in the production, debuts her role. Greg Parker, chair of the W&L Music Department, and the up-and-coming Virginia tenor, Steven Murray make OR debuts as Elders McLean and Hayes.

Like many a masterpiece of youthful genius, Susannah is dramatically striking and boldly original...Its Janus-faced like Mozart or Verdi, absorbing the influences of its tradition and milieu while looking forward...As the creator of the title character, Phyllis Curtin said, it has the elements that make for great theatre. And much of its greatness lies in the brilliant realization of its leading characters. Susannah, Blitch, and Sam are quite the triangle, though they have no trio to sing as they might in Mozart, Verdi or Puccini (indeed, Sam’s only encounter with the “Preacher” is offstage... Spoiler alert!)

Dare we say they are Shakespearean in their three-dimensional humanity? As in comparisons with Mozart and Verdi, this is quite the compliment, since the composer must use the abstract means of music to create substance and depth, beauty and appeal. I’m reminded of Wolfgang Rihm’s compositional creed, relevant across the 20th century and still true: “music must be full of emotion, and the emotion full of complexity.” This is all the more reason to celebrate the accomplishment of a composer up to the task of creating such beautifully human complexity in a musical drama, as Carlisle Floyd has done with Susannah.

With a concert's zeal, I find myself increasingly passionate about this opera and its timelessness. It is pitch-perfect in its evocation of a particular story and a specific era. We experience the piece as authentic because of its realization - the "truth" of its poetic "voice" resonates with us. When we say we've had a special or memorable "experience", its often an artistic one. The "great" work of art transcends the general or individual, and approaches, as a "masterpiece" can, the universal. These enduring works of art have a unique, inimitable way of helping us feel fully human and alive.

Besides, its simply a thrill to experience a great piece of musical drama like Susannah live. I hope all our friends will join us for what will be a special premiere, April 28 & 30.

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