Dixie Diva Digs Deep

By Steven Libowitz   |   August 9, 2018
Susanna Phillips

For soprano Susanna Phillips, returning to the Music Academy of the West (MAW) this Saturday to take part in the big community concert at the Santa Barbara Bowl, when Gustavo Dudamel leads the massive Fellows-powered Academy Festival Orchestra and special guests mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung and the L.A. Master Chorale in Mahler’s Resurrection symphony (No. 2), represents something of a full circle.

Sure, Phillips was in town last August to join the New York Phil closing out MAW’s celebratory 70th season at SBCC’s Harder Stadium with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. But this is the summer that the Academy re-mounted Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, in which Phillips sang the lead role of the Countess during her time as a Fellow in Montecito. “I had a really formative couple of years there,” she recalled over the phone from her home in New York, where she is a frequent star at the Met Opera. “I went into college not knowing if I wanted to be an opera singer, and my time there helped fostered idea that I could really do it as a profession. It gave me a real sense of confidence.”

So did winning the Marilyn Horne Song Competition, which Phillips called “a really big moment for me in the early part of my career.”

That career has included dozens of leading roles in operas across the country and around the globe, and a series of song recitals and other appearances that have cemented Phillips’s reputation as a consummate performer with technical brilliance and soaring spirit. Yet she still described last year’s experience at SBCC as “absolutely incredible.”

“We sang in front of a huge crowd who were all really psyched to be there,” she recalled. “My part was pretty small, but just to stand on a stage and be a part of that concert with the New York Phil gave me goosebumps. And the setting! It’s incomparable. Overlooking the sea and singing Beethoven’s Ninth? What an experience!”

Phillips is hoping for an evening that’s equally transcendent, though with a different flavor, as the concert will feature Mahler’s masterpiece, the Resurrection symphony, representing the soprano’s first time performing the piece, as well as her debut experience under Dudamel’s baton.

Michelle DeYoung

“Again, it’s not a large part, but it’s very essential in the way Mahler wrote it,” she explained. “The soprano line comes out of the chorus as she joins them and then transcends them vocally both in volume and pitch, which is showing a new birth, almost like a phoenix rising. The soprano line emerges from the chorus, indicating transcendence, literally rising above. It’s quite beautiful.”

Mahler meant the whole piece as an avenue of healing, and that message is part of the appeal for the soprano. “The climax at the end is so loud and absolutely full of life, which is the point of the piece. Coming back to life, living on after death.”

Indeed, healing is a big part of the reason MAW programmed the symphony, as an offering for the Montecito and Santa Barbara communities still in recovery from the devastating Thomas Fire and debris flows last January. Giving back to the community is also an important endeavor for Phillips, who co-founded the annual Twickenham Festival – which features a series of free concerts powered by classical stars – to return some of the support and encouragement she received growing up in Alabama.

“It’s not an opera or classical music mecca. But they always supported me in what I wanted to do. When I did a singing recital in high school, nobody even knew I was taking voice lessons, but there were 500 people in the audience, including the entire basketball team lined up in a whole row, even though they’d never gone to a classical music concert before. And when I made my Met debut, 450 people flew up over the course of the run just to see me. So, there really felt that sense of community and support to explore what seemed a strange world of classical music. That’s how I found my way into the world. Twickenham – and community concerts – are my way of giving back.”

This Week at Music Academy of the West

Thursday, August 9: There’s no guarantee that the winner of today’s Marilyn Horne Song Competition will follow Susanna Phillips into international stardom as an opera singer and interpreter of song (though she’ll be out in the theater as one of the judges). There’s also almost no guarantee that you can still get a seat to one of the most coveted events of the summer, even more so as it represents one of the few appearances by the now emeritus director of the Vocal Program at MAW. But for lovers of art song, it doesn’t get any better than seeing the full slate of vocal Fellows and pianists partnering on a sumptuous smorgasbord of repertoire (4 & 7:30 pm; Hahn Hall).

Friday, August 10: Pianist Conor Hanick gets the honor of leading the final master class of the summer, taking the solo piano Fellows on a journey at 1 pm in Hahn Hall.

Saturday, August 11: Dudamel, DeYoung, Phillips, L.A. Master Chorale, and the massive Academy Festival Orchestra make Mahler’s Resurrection symphony (No. 2) a community concert for healing (7 pm; Santa Barbara Bowl; $10).


You might also be interested in...

  • Woman holding phone

    Support the
    Santa Barbara non-profit transforming global healthcare through telehealth technology