Soprano Susanna Phillips and a star-studded opening week at the Aspen Music Festival
IF YOU GO …
What: Susanna Phillips, presented by the Aspen Music Festival and School
Where: Harris Concert Hall
When: Tuesday, July 3, 7:30 p.m.
How much: $60
Tickets: Wheeler Opera House and Harris Hall box offices; aspenmusicfestival.com
More info: Phillips’ recital will include Barber’s “Hermit Songs,” Schumann’s “Frauenliebe und -leben,” Wolf’s “Mignon Lieder” from “Goethe-Lieder” and Libby Larsen’s “Try Me, Good King: Last Words of the Wives of Henry VIII.”
Take away the intricate costumes, the massive sets and the swirling casts of the Metropolitan Opera productions that have made her a global star, and the soprano Susanna Phillips will still breathe vivid life into a character in song.
“I think the whole point of doing art song or any song or any dramatic experience is to find whatever that character is and to sing that truth,” Phillips said in a phone interview from St. Louis, where last weekend she concluded her run in Opera Theatre of St. Louis’s “Regina.”
Phillips will give a recital at the Aspen Music Festival on Tuesday built around songs of the female experience.
The program began with the soprano’s desire to perform Schumann’s popular “Frauenliebe und -leben,” The Schumann piece is based on the cycle of poems by the German poet Adalbert von Chamisso chronicling a lifelong love story from the woman’s point of view.
“It’s kind of one version of a female experience that was in the 1800s and written by a man — certainly a loving and caring portrayal, because it was a wedding gift to his wife,” Phillips explained. “But it doesn’t provide all the dimensions of the female experience. I tried to bring in some other repertoire that would broaden that horizon a little bit.”
She rounded it out with the very Aspen-appropriate, Goethe-inspired “Mignon Lieder” by Hugo Wolf and Libby Larsen’s “Try Me, Good King” songs, which take their lyrics from the last words of Henry VIII’s six wives “who,” as Phillips put it, “all have their own perspective and experience with this tyrant of a king.”
She opens the program with Samuel Barber’s “Hermit Songs,” based on anonymous poems written by Irish monks in the margins of illuminated manuscripts a millennia ago. They have more in common with Phillips’ other characters, and with us, than you might think.
“I imagine people who live in a monastery or who would take on the veil are very single-minded and focused,” Phillips said. “It just shows that they have a sense of humor and they are into different things.”
Phillips compares this recital’s songs to a pearl necklace — made up of small pieces that, together, build to something substantial and beautiful.
“The program is personal,” she said. “I’m taking on a lot of characters, but there’s also an element of myself in it.”
Phillips put the recital together with her longtime collaborator, pianist Myra Huang, who will accompany her Tuesday.
“We make these programs together because we want to make sure both of us really want to do all the songs on the program,” Phillips said. “There’s nothing worse than having a song on a program you’re not really looking forward to, that’s not something you love and that inspires you. Every song on this program inspires us both.”
And while her roles at the Met — where she made her debut as Musetta in “La boheme” in 2008 and where she is singing three roles this year — are what have made Phillips a global star, recital performances, she said, are her preferred setting.
“It’s my favorite way to perform,” she said. “It’s really very intimate. You have a lot of flexibility.”
Phillips has performed in Aspen several times in recent years, including the festival’s triumphant 2013 staging of the opera “Peter Grimes” in the Benedict Music Tent. Aspen Times critic Harvey Steiman wrote that Phillips “unleashed a creamy soprano that responded to each situation with heart-tugging phrasing” in the role of Ellen Orford.
Her return Tuesday is among the highlights of the 2018 Aspen Music Festival’s first week.
The festival opened Thursday with a recital by the Jupiter String Quartet. Its first Benedict Music Tent concert of the summer today pairs Aspen favorite Conrad Tao with the Aspen Chamber Symphony for Schumann’s piano concerto and Beethoven’s fifth symphony. The opening weekend’s big Sunday concert includes the Aspen Festival Orchestra with pianist Jonathan Biss — who is substituting for soloist Yuja Wang, who has canceled her Aspen appearances — performing Beethoven’s first piano concerto and Shostakovich’s “Leningrad” symphony.
Aspen’s Mayor Pro Tem Ann Mullins summed up the excitement of these opening days of the Aspen Music Festival in her remarks at the music school’s convocation Monday.
“The Music Festival really begins our summer season,” Mullins told music school students assembled in the Benedict Music Tent. “This is the start of it all. But I think, more important than that, is it defines the summer in Aspen. Whether it’s listening to a quartet on the mall on a Saturday night or hearing someone practicing their music from an upstairs window as you’re walking through town or coming to the music tent to hear the performance of a beloved symphony. You define summer and make this a special place.”
To the talented student singers spending the summer in Aspen, Phillips says to follow your passion.
“I really focused on enjoying what I did, making sure the projects I did were interesting to me,” she said, “not necessarily focusing on how much money they had or how much exposure they had.”
At this point, Phillips can do whatever she wants with her voice. But she is following that same road map now that she is at the top of her field.
“I’m focusing on what inspires me,” she said. “There are a ton of arias and art songs — if I don’t really love it there are 25,000 other sopranos out there who can do it. So there’s no point in doing anything that doesn’t inspire me.”
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Aspen Words’ literary conference and festival is back in-person after a pandemic hiatus and a move from June to autumn.