Wednesday, October 21, 2015

New Prima Donna Role: Susan Smith

By Manda Leigh Blunt

The opera landscape has always been brimming with challenging female characters. Timeless characters such as Carmen, Juliette, and Mimì are just a few to pull from the standard rep, but they are not the only game in town. Opera has seen an exciting shift with a surge of new works being written and commissioned about events and people from our time. These current storylines help singers and the audience connect and relate to the characters’ emotional journey while creating more opportunities for productions, and allowing singers to dig into a new piece to truly make the characters their own.

One opera that is coming up through the ranks is Susan Smith, a contemporary opera that follows the story of Susan Smith, a single mother in her early-twenties who has endured a broken childhood, horrible abuse, and the death of her children. Susan Smith was in the news in South Carolina during the 1990s when her children went missing and claimed an unknown man kidnapped them. Nine days later it was revealed that Smith actually drowned her toddlers. With music composed by Zach Redler (2014 winner of Johnathan Larson Award) and libretto written by Mark Campbell (Pulitzer Prize winner of the opera Silent Night), this story is the perfect suspense and drama for the current stage.

The opera Susan Smith begins the afternoon before her children are murdered and ends with her confession to the police. The audience is faced with an ongoing contemplation of Susan’s mental health while watching her struggle though thoughts of her troubled adolescence and her ultimate decision to murder her children. Not only does the audience experience Susan’s emotional journey, but the neighborhoods as well. “The town goes from ‘Let’s all pray for Susan’ to ‘Let’s all lynch Susan’ once they found out what really happened,” says composer Zach Redler. But their reactions symbolize something deeper. Zach continues, “I think it’s monitoring how we as a society react to these kinds of things. For good or bad, we react strongly no matter what it is. There’s not time to think about the ‘why.’”

As opera grows and evolves, so do expectations. “[Susan’s role] is very text driven. I think the text is very important, so it needs to be understood. A lot of Susan’s lines sit in the middle voice, but the soprano needs to access above the staff very easily without….is it wrong to say ‘bringing the weight?’” said Redler.

“Susan is not a coloratura soprano, but she has to be able to move while having a presence in the lower middle as well. It also has to be expressive because the acting part of the role is intense.” said Brittney Redler, Zach’s wife, accomplished singer, and PhD candidate who served as the model for his composition.

Composer Zach Redler (courtesy photo)

Redler empathetically agrees with his wife’s statement adding, “The acting is VERY important, where traditionally it hasn’t necessarily been in opera. If there were one thing I could tell every operatic student, it would be to spend just as much time studying the craft of acting as you do the craft of singing. It’s so important in new work because librettists like Mark are writing characters, not just stories. It is so important that you can embody that.”

In each stage of this work’s development it has gained more and more momentum. It has evolved from a fifteen-minute orchestral reading at the John Duffy Institute for New Opera to being performed at the Fort Worth Opera’s Frontier Festival for new work and most recently seen at Colorado University Boulder’s workshop program, CU Now, where they presented a fully staged production. Nothing is officially announced for the next production or workshop of Susan Smith, but you can keep an eye out for news on Redler’s website, If you haven’t had the chance to see or hear this new opera, visit Zach’s website to purchase a copy of the first aria and check out this clip from Fort Worth Opera’s Young Artists.

HEAR some of the music:

Video Credits:
Performed by Fort Worth Opera Young Artists:

Opera: Susan Smith
Composer: Zach Redler
Pianist: Emily Jarrell Urbanek
Conductor: Tyson Deaton 
Singers: Maren Weinberger
 Dane Suarez, Clara Neiman, Nate Mattingly


BONUS: 4 tips to singing Susan Smith with Maren Weinberger

1.     In this piece, because of the aria’s length, it’s really important to keep that ‘internal dialogue’ going. It’s easy to get lost in the idea of her being a little crazed and going back and forth between memories and subjects, so it’s vital to write out your underlying thoughts in your music, over long phrases, and memorize it, just to keep it straight while singing.

2.   It definitely takes a lot of work to get the music down. There are some difficult meter changes throughout that make it tricky. It helps a ton to get with your pianist and go over those big changes again and again until they are more natural, otherwise you just sit with a metronome trying to figure it out yourself, and at least for me, that can be maddening! It all becomes very natural sounding, and fitting one you get it down. Zach Reddler knows what he’s doing!

3.  Overall, I would say it’s important to know your strengths with this particular piece. It’s difficult dramatically (revealing a very broken psyche) and vocally (flexible range needed). I felt my background in crossover roles really helped me approach this role, as a lot of phrases aren’t meant to be vocally appealing, but raw, real. So you need to get your head out of the “making pretty opera singer sounds” realm and dive in fearlessly!

4.  Playing ‘psycho’, or ‘sick’ is a delicate balance.. you have to remember she’s trying to seem sane, not only for the benefit of others so she can get away with her crime, but to convince herself that she’s not crazy, or even more so, that she’s done nothing wrong. Plus, she is in fact a real person, she’s not fictional, she really did those monstrous things.. So, you still have to portray humanity. Even if its broken and fractured. An acting challenge, for sure.