The soprano Susanna Phillips brought to the WQXR Café a set of Mozart songs that have their roots in salon music, meant to be sung by mainly amateurs in living rooms and at social events. In keeping with this sensibility, she sat beside pianist Myra Huang at the keyboard in a strikingly un-diva-like approach.
This is not Phillips’s typical performance setting. She has a busy agenda at the Metropolitan Opera this season where she’s singing Fiordiligi in Così fan tutte, Rosalinde in a new staging of Strauss’s Die Fledermaus and Musetta in La bohème – a reprise of the role in which she made her house debut in 2008. She's also slated to appear with the major orchestras of San Francisco, Philadelphia and St. Louis, the latter being a concert performance of Britten's Peter Grimes at Carnegie Hall on Nov. 22.
But on this day, she decided to take it down few notches. As she told the assembled audience, “Mozart didn’t write too many songs but he always kept a notebook of song texts that he would use. I have a feeling that if he had lived longer, he would have set more.” One of Mozart’s most famous songs, "An Chloe," ("To Chloe") uses simple lyricism to convey a romantic encounter between two people.
Next in the set was Mozart's song "Als Luise die Briefe Ihres Ungetreuen Liebhabers Verbrannte" ("As Louise Burned the Letters of Her Faithless Lover"). As it happens, this has a text by a woman, Gabriele von Baumberg, and its cumbersome title explains its dramatic storyline. The Huntsville, Alabama-raised Phillips notes that she sang this song for her college auditions, a choice that apparently paid off: she was accepted to Juilliard, from which she received her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees.
Phillips compares Mozart's music to “a really great Gucci or Armani suit," with clean lines and timeless quality. “I find that Mozart is the bellwether for a good vocal technique and whenever I’m not doing well vocally I go back to Mozart and find what my voice is again," she said. "You can’t hide in Mozart. You must vocally be very pure and lined up.”
Asked about her favorite Mozart roles, Phillips points to Fiordiligi from Cosi. “She’s fiery and deep and has a real true heart and struggles a lot with the conception of the voice that I’ve given her,” she said. In the recent Met production Phillips sang alongside her former college roommate, Isabelle Leonard. "I know her singing, I know her style and I know her dramatic impulses. It’s fun to have our voices blend."
Phillips's set ends with Mozart’s soaring, proto-Romantic "Abendempfindung" “(''Evening Thoughts'').
Video: Amy Pearl; Audio: Edward Haber; Text & Production: Brian Wise; Interview: Naomi Lewin