By David Brown, Communications Associate
When someone has enjoyed the kind of success that soprano Susanna Phillips '99 has for the last ten years or so, especially in a field as rarefied and daunting as that of classical music, you tend to assume it’s the result of lifelong, burning, laser-focused ambition. But as a “lifer” at Randolph, music was just one of many activities that Phillips enjoyed.
“I thought it was a lot of fun,” she laughs, “a lovely, fun thing to do, but I also thought being in plays was fun, and I thought playing sports was fun, and I thought taking A.P. classes was fun. It didn’t stick out as something I wanted to do as a vocation.”
And when, near the end of her Randolph years, college counselor Rusty Allen asked her if she’d ever considered applying to a music conservatory, she said no—emphatically.
[Susanna shared this story on NPR's Performance Today. Her Randolph story starts at 5:51.]
“I was actually very surprised,” she remembers. “Nobody had ever discussed this with me, and I’d never considered it. So when he asked me that, I said, ‘No, of course not! Are you nuts? I’m not going to a conservatory. I’m not going to New York City. That’s ridiculous! Who does that?’”
“Are you nuts? I’m not going to a conservatory. I’m not going to New York City. That’s ridiculous! Who does that?’”
Shift to the year 2005, a year after Phillips had earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in voice at the Juilliard School, one of the country’s most prestigious music conservatories. During that calendar year, she won four of the world’s leading vocal competitions: Placido Domingo’s Operalia (both First Place and the Audience Favorite Prize), the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, the MacAllister Awards, and the George London Foundation Awards Competition. The combination was a feat, as far as anyone has been able to determine, that no one else has ever accomplished.
Since then, she has built on strength after strength, appearing with opera companies, orchestras, and chamber musicians in venues from Stockholm to Sydney and seemingly most everywhere in between. A partial list includes the Metropolitan Opera (for eight consecutive seasons so far), Lyric Opera of Chicago and the companies of Boston, Dallas, Minnesota, and Santa Fe, the San Francisco Symphony, St Louis Symphony Orchestra, Royal Stockholm Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra, Oratorio Society of New York, Santa Fe Symphony, Dallas Symphony Orchestra, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Orchestra of St. Luke’s. Last November, she stepped in for an ailing colleague to sing the solo soprano part in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, in a Carnegie Hall performance by the redoubtable Berlin Philharmonic and conductor Sir Simon Rattle.
She’s given solo recitals in New York’s Alice Tully Hall and Carnegie’s Weill Recital Hall and collaborated in chamber concerts with a top tier of renowned performers. In 2010, she co-founded Twickenham Fest, the only summer chamber music festival in Alabama, with former Randolph student Matt McDonald, now the principal bassoonist in the Rochester Philharmonic. That same year, she won the Metropolitan Opera’s annual Beverly Sills Award, given to gifted young singers between the ages of 25 and 40, which carries a $50,000 prize, making it the largest award of its kind in the country. The year 2011 saw the release of Paysages, her first solo album on Bridge Records.
Dizzy yet? In the midst of all of this hectic activity, Phillips found time to get married to New York-based lawyer David Huntington at his family’s home on Long Island’s North Shore. In early November, along with her husband, she ran her first New York Marathon; naturally, she sang the National Anthem before the race started. “My goal,” she said, “was to cross the finish line.” Which she did.
How did she arrive at this musical career, and did her Randolph experience play any part in it? “Absolutely!” she enthuses. “They really laid a foundation for me at Randolph in the fine arts, in visual and musical arts and theater, and they treated them all as important subjects during the school day, as something normal. That early exposure sends a message, makes you feel comfortable accepting it and growing in it.”
So in addition to this active student’s many athletic activities—basketball, volleyball, soccer, tennis, softball, cheerleading—Phillips was getting the sounds of French and Spanish in her ear, playing handbells in lower school and, beginning in middle school, singing in the choir, often including solos, in concerts under Jo Harney’s direction. “Because, you know, at Randolph,” Phillips says, “you get the opportunity to do so many different things, to try different things to find out who you are, to find out what fits you. You’re not boxed into one category.”
"At Randolph, you get the opportunity to do and try different things to find out who you are and what fits you. You’re not boxed into one category.”
Around her junior year, Phillips’ parents, Mac and Barbara, got a call from Harney. “She told them, ‘Her voice is starting to stick out. You might want to think about giving her some voice lessons,’” Phillips laughs. “So when my parents asked me if I wanted to, I said, ‘Sure, why not?’ even though I was already doing every extracurricular activity known to man!” Coincidentally, just weeks before, on a family trip to New York, Phillips had attended a performance of Madama Butterfly at the Met and experienced something of an epiphany. “Here was this woman,” she remembers, “singing to me, or at least looking in my direction, speaking a language I didn’t know. I had no idea what she was saying, and yet I got what she was trying to say, the emotion she was trying to convey. And I thought that idea, being able to communicate with someone without actually knowing what they’re saying, to emotionally communicate with somebody, was fascinating to me. I was really moved by that.”
In the midst of taking voice lessons in Huntsville, first with a student of the renowned Ginger Beazley, eventually with Beazley herself, came the fateful encounter in Rusty Allen’s college counseling office.
“Randolph prepares you with an excellent liberal arts education,” Phillips testifies, “one that gives you lots of college options. That’s a given. I always thought I would go to a regular school. I didn’t know any professional musicians. In my mind, you were either Pavarotti, making millions of dollars, or you were busking on the street for change. I had never met musicians who had families and sent kids to school, had a mortgage, living perfectly happy, normal, stable lives, professional lives. To me, music was always a fun hobby, not a vocation.
“I really thought I was going to do something in the medical field, like my father. And I think I would have loved to! I’m so obsessed with those medical TV shows. So here’s Rusty Allen meeting with each of us and talking to us about choosing colleges, where we should apply, having a ‘safety school’ where you didn’t need to worry about getting in. He was really able to help steer us in the right direction. And he drops this bombshell suggestion on me about applying to a conservatory.”
To her very negative reaction to the suggestion, Allen told her he’d heard her sing over the years, liked her voice, but didn’t know how good she was. She should just apply to see, he advised. If she got in, she’d know, even if she decided not to go. If she didn’t get in, she would be getting “some clear advice.” “He was appealing to my pride, really, and that worked. He knew what to say to me to open that door,” she says admiringly.
The fact that this option even occurred to Allen points to something else Phillips values about Randolph. “The faculty, staff, the administrators, they really care about every student, they get to know every student, and they show up! Show up to events, to football games and choir concerts and plays and tennis matches, they are there. I could have very easily gotten through school and gone a more predictable route if Mr. Allen had not known me well enough to pull me aside. I wouldn’t have even considered it if it hadn’t been for Rusty Allen. I’m grateful, because there’s no other way I would have taken this path.”
Phillips followed Allen’s advice, including a few conservatories among the schools she applied to. For whatever reason, the Juilliard School intrigued her the most. She remembers sitting on the front steps waiting for the postman, waiting for the letter from Juilliard. “It was strange. I wanted to get in because I wanted to get in, but I wasn’t entirely sure I wanted to go there. It happened without my ever saying, ‘I want to be an opera singer. I want it so much. I must get in.’ It was more, ‘I wonder what it would be like if I actually went.’”
She went, of course, but still had qualms. Living in New York was a culture shock, and she was in touch with friends who were enjoying beautiful campuses and exploring diverse fields of study. “No Greek system,” she fumes. “No fraternities or sororities. We had NO athletics, and I was very much into athletics. I loved team sports, and I couldn’t go to games. That was strange to me, and I didn’t want to miss out on that.”
And yet another aspect of her Randolph experience stood her in good stead. “Discipline and integrity,” she says. “What Randolph’s honor system taught me was self-responsibility. That bond of trust and faith has been so important to me, so empowering, and believe me, when you walk out on a stage for an audition, a performance, whatever, and you haven’t prepared with discipline and don’t feel confident, you’re in big trouble.”
Asked if this has helped her live her life beyond her school years, her impassioned reply is, “It’s the only thing that helps! Anyone can read notes off a page, but the only way you become a great musician is by finding who you are in peace. That’s the journey. It’s the hardest thing in life to find out who you are and be that, and as a musician it’s doubly hard because you have to find out who you are and communicate it, and do that through works you didn’t create yourself. The sense of confidence Randolph instilled has been crucially important.”
"It’s the hardest thing in life to find out who you are and be that."
True to form, Phillips love of sports is never far beneath the surface. “I would say that my times on sports teams helped me a lot, too. I remember basketball especially, because I loved it so. I remember that sense of being part of a team, your teammates relying on you, building your skills together. You have a certain role that you play to the best of your ability, and you can’t do somebody else’s job for them. All of that kind of interplay is exactly what an opera is like. It’s what chamber music is like. It really translates.”
Last August, this three-time alumna of Space Camp was inducted into its Hall of Fame, presumably the first classical soprano to be so honored. “They asked me the same question, and it’s exactly the same thing. The teams that send people into space are exactly like a sports team or a chamber music group. You do your job the best you can, remaining open to whatever may come from your colleagues, and you trust that they do their job and are open to you and the back and forth with you.”
Despite the recent struggles of many arts organizations and the dire state of the classical music recording industry, Phillips is upbeat about being a musician now. “I’m so excited. I feel like it’s at this turning point. I think it’s one of the most exciting times to be a musician because there’s not a preconceived path. There are so many ways of being a classical musician now that weren’t possible before. Before, if you wanted to be an opera singer, you would go and sing in Germany for a few years. You’d do these small roles in these small houses, and you’d build your career. You’d do these roles in a traditional order in these houses, and that’s what you would do. Now, you really have the ability to make whatever career you want. It’s the exact right time to come along because I can help start a chamber music festival, and I can do orchestral engagements and recitals and operas and also have a family life while creating my own way of making music.”
"Without seeing the butterfly fly, you wouldn’t care about the history of the butterfly or any of the rest of it."
She is less sanguine about the longtime trend of many schools eliminating arts curricula first whenever budget pressures mount. “I think if you have an education that only values things like math and science, and takes away the arts, you’re taking away something that informs in a different way than math and science, that provides balance. My husband is a lawyer, so he lives in a very linear, objective world, whereas in my world, everything is subjective. It’s how do you feel about something, what do you think about something, what is your opinion about that, do you like this, do you not like this, should it go this way, should it go that way. There’s very, very little that is objective. It’s a different way of thought, but equally important. To provide an education where you don’t value subjectivity is doing your students a disservice, failing to put your faith in them. I think you need to instill students with the confidence to make evaluations and decisions subjectively.
“I guess I don’t really understand the point of, okay, say you can dissect a butterfly, or you can name the parts of a butterfly, analyze the movement of the butterfly, know the history of the butterfly, but there’s nothing quite like watching a butterfly. That’s a totally different experience. I feel like you have to have, you need, both, because without seeing the butterfly fly, you wouldn’t care about the history of the butterfly or any of the rest of it.”
Photos: Rusty Allen with some of the other alumni he has advised during his long tenure at Randolph; Susanna and fellow Twickenham Fest performers with Upper School students in the Thurber Arts Center Choir Room in 2012.