Opera News

Season of Susanne.(Susanne Mentzer)(Interview)

PAUL THOMASON examines the sweetness and strength of Susanne Mentzer, one of the most gifted of the current bumper crop of lyric mezzos

Taped to Susanne Mentzer's refrigerator in Aspen, Colorado, is a Polaroid taken in 1976. Staring at the camera, through colors that have faded to a series of browns, is a very young woman dressed in male attire. It is Mentzer, ready to go onstage as Nicklausse in Les Contes d'Hoffmann. "I put it there to remind me of how far I've come," she explains.

The American mezzo has indeed come a long way, and she has done it all through constant ham work, paying her dues and turning in one sterling performance after another. Her voice is one of the glories of the musical world today: it is even from top (she has a good high C) to bottom, with a solid trill, an excellent command of messa di voce and a formidable coloratura technique, which she uses to convey drama and emotion. She knows how to spin and caress a long, arching musical line without ever allowing it to become dull. And when she wants to -- though it is not often -- she can unleash a chest voice as earthy and gutsy as a prewar Italian mezzo's. She also knows how to put across a wide variety of musical styles, from Handel to contemporary composers, and she combines that ability with a riveting, instinctive stage presence to create characters ranging from Mozart's impish Cherubino to Debussy's haunted Melisande. Just the way Mentzer walked onstage in Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi in Los Angeles last year immediately defined Romeo as an aristocratic young man, totally at ease, supremely self-confident, yet still -- somehow -- likable. It was all communicated to the audience instantly, before she had sung a single note.

This past summer Mentzer returned to Aspen, where she had once been a student, as a member of the faculty and a featured performer in several orchestral and recital programs. "I first came to Aspen after my sophomore year at the University of the Pacific, and I was really naive about music," Mentzer says. "I didn't know what an art song was. I heard kids talking about Bartok and thought they meant b-a-r t-a-l-k." But she was cast as the Third Genie in The Magic Flute and as Nicklausse. "That was a shocker? she remembers. "It was the first time anybody had recognized my talent in such a big way."

It was also prophetic, since Mozart's operas -- and numerous pants roles -- have been a staple of her international career. …

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