Soprano Susanna Phillips, Lyric Opera alum, returns to Chicago to sing at Grant Park fest
Interview: The opera soprano says she finds an intimacy in Copland’s eight settings that’s rare on the dramatic stage.
By Anne E. Johnson
Despite sounding hoarse over the phone because of a cold, Susanna Phillips gushed enthusiasm about making her debut at the Grant Park Music Festival on June 21 in a concert conducted by festival music director Carlos Kalmar. A rising star in the world of opera, the 2010 winner of the Metropolitan Opera’s Beverly Sills Artist Award has spent plenty of time in Chicago.
“I love coming to Chicago,” she said. “When I trained in the Lyric Opera’s Ryan Center for American Artists program, I didn’t spend many summers there, so I never got to go to the Grant Park Festival, but I’m looking forward to it.”
She’s just as enthusiastic about the unusual repertoire she’ll be performing, Aaron Copland’s “Eight Poems of Emily Dickinson.” The programming was Kalmar’s idea, but Phillips jumped at the chance. “I love those pieces,” she said. “Emily Dickinson is an incredible poet. The poems have so many layers.” And Copland’s music, in her estimation, enhances the poetry. “He had a sense of grounding in America, and such a sense of color.”
She points to Copland’s setting of the poem “The world – feels Dusty” as an example of how he could paint America in sound. “It makes me feel like I’m standing in Oklahoma.” She also admires Copland’s choice of “The Chariot” as the final song. “It’s probably the best composed piece,” she said, “and it has rhythmic similarities to the first song. Plus, it’s a poignant way to end the cycle.” One of Dickinson’s best-known works, “The Chariot” starts with the sobering yet somehow peaceful words, “Because I could not stop for Death / He kindly stopped for me…”
The poems themselves are rhythmically simple. “It cracks me up that you can sing every one of these to the melody of ‘The Yellow Rose of Texas,’” Phillips said. Copland’s treatment varies them. And it’s not just Copland’s settings, but his decisions about which of Dickinson’s 1,800 or so extant verses to use that make the song cycle special. “He made colorful and musical choices in picking the poems,” Phillips said.
One of her favorite songs in the collection is “Going to heaven!” At first the text is rife with exclamation points and excited imaginings of what might be waiting for us on high. Copland reflects these in short, ascending phrases. By the end, Dickinson has admitted that she doesn’t believe in any of those celestial trappings. “I love how it shows a bit of attitude,” says Phillips, referring to wisecracking lines like “Perhaps you’re going too! / Who knows?”
In 1949, when Copland originally started working with Dickinson’s verse, he chose 12 poems and set them for voice and piano. Over the next couple of decades, he orchestrated eight of them, which became the piece Phillips will sing with the Grant Park Orchestra. She’s very familiar with the piano version of the song cycle (you can hear her sing the piano version of “Going to Heaven!” here), and finds that the songs change when there’s an orchestra behind her.
“They’re not exactly the way I experience them with the piano, color-wise,” she said. “They become more expansive.” She names “Heart, we will forget him!” as seeming almost like a different piece with orchestration. “It’s more complex. Deeper.” The long, lush string lines in the orchestrated accompaniment provide a texture impossible for a piano to create.
For Phillips, the orchestra’s expansion or deepening of the music gets to the heart of her performance. “As Ellie Ameling famously said, ‘Each song has its own voice,’” she explained. “I had characters in my head. When I first tried the songs with orchestra, the characters became more distinct. Learning the piano version before the orchestra version is kind of like reading a book before seeing the movie.”
Considering how much opera Phillips sings (she appeared at the Lyric Opera most recently in Gounod’s “Romeo et Juliette” during the 2015-16 season), it’s not surprising that she thinks in terms of characters when she performs art song. In some ways, she says, her approach to rehearsing a song cycle is similar to that for an opera. “It’s not such a different kind of preparation, perfecting your dynamics and balance with the instruments,” she said. “But what can be different is the intimacy of the songs. Art songs are more intimate than many opera arias.”
Plus, she enjoys not being limited to one character, as she is when she performs an opera: “In a song cycle, you imagine yourself as the point of view of each song.” That, ultimately, is how she came to understand the difference between the settings with piano and with orchestra. “My concept of the songs’ characters changed with the orchestrated version because their musical landscape changed.”
It’s a landscape she’s delighted to explore. “These are beautiful settings,” she said, “understated in their beauty.” Hence, she finds it important not to oversell their drama. “I don’t try to move people with the songs – the songs do it themselves,” she said. “These songs make people feel differently than something much more in-your-face like the Strauss ‘Four Last Songs.’ The artist doesn’t go to the audience for these, but the audience comes into the music.”
Phillips performs the Copland at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park on June 21, with open rehearsals on June 20 and 21. Also on the program are Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4 and Wagner’s “Faust” Overture. For tickets and information, click here.