Down-to-earth soloist will sing with the MSO

March 22, 2007|by KATE COLEMAN

The Maryland Symphony Orchestra has three performances this weekend.

The first, at 2 p.m. Saturday, March 24, will be part of the Maryland Day Celebration at the Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda, Md.

"We're very happy to have this opportunity," said Music Director Elizabeth Schulze. "To play in a great hall and to have exposure to a wider audience is very important."

Schulze and the orchestra will come home to The Maryland Theatre for Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon performances, and mezzo-soprano Susanne Mentzer will join them.


Her visit will be a kind of homecoming. Mentzer, an international performer who lives in Houston, spent her freshman and sophomore years at Catoctin High School in Thurmont, Md. Her parents live in nearby Quincy, Pa.

Schulze called Mentzer a world-class musician who has sung in all the major opera houses of the world. Her local performance is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hear someone who is a major singer in her prime years, Schulze said.

The MasterWorks IV program opens with the overture to Hector Berlioz's opera "Beatrice and Benedict." Schulze said she chose the instrumental piece in honor of Mentzer, who has sung the role of Beatrice in the opera several times to much acclaim.

"I sort of specialize in Berlioz," said Mentzer in a recent phone interview from St. Louis where she was rehearsing for a chamber music performance and three performances with the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra.

In Hagerstown, she will sing Berlioz's "Les Nuits d't (The Nights of Summer)" - which she called "beautiful, beautiful songs."

The artist also is known for her skills in singing "trouser roles," the parts of young boys. Composers like the vulnerable sound of a woman's voice portraying a teenage boy, Mentzer said.

"I'm 50 now and it's really a riot to sing a boy, but makeup does wonders," she added with characteristic humility and humor.

Her career is a bit of a wonder. She acted and sang in Catoctin High School plays and choruses. Then her family moved to New Mexico, where her new high school didn't have a music program. Not thinking she was good enough for a career, she studied music therapy for two years. During the summer she was 19, faculty at the Aspen Music Festival in Colorado encouraged her to attend The Juilliard School in New York City. She did, earning bachelor's and master's degrees.

The profession that intimidated a younger Mentzer has served her well. Has her success given her confidence?

"No, I always think I'm going to be fired," she said with a laugh. "I think once a vulnerable performer, always a vulnerable performer."

Schulze said she appreciates Mentzer's humility.

"It is refreshing when someone can be down-to-earth like that," Schulze said. "It also contributes to the way that she presents herself in the music - in a way that's completely accessible."

Mentzer teaches voice at Rice University in Houston.

"I love teaching," she said. "It's one of those professions where you go into work and you might be tired, and by the end of the day, you come out exhilarated."

She likes seeing the light go on when she's trying to get a point across and students get it. "Especially with singing, because you can't put your finger on your voice. It's all metaphors and things to get your mind just (to) imagine a sound."

Mentzer toured 11 months a year during the 20 years she was building her career. A little more than five years ago, she wanted more time at home with her then 13-year-old son. That son is now a college student in Western Pennsylvania.

She's resumed a heavier touring schedule, and admitted to having some trouble adjusting - balancing teaching and performing and traveling a lot.

Mentzer said she's kind of at a crossroads.

"I'm glad that I'm doing more concert work in one sense, because sometimes when I do the operas, I'm the oldest one in the cast now," she added with a hearty laugh.

She's not ready to retire. On her wish list of future performances is "Werther," an opera by Jules Massenet she's never done. "And I'd love to do more Strauss again."

Last December, Mentzer checked another musical goal off her list. She sang the role of the mother of Yueyang in The Metropolitan Opera's $2 million production of "The First Emperor."

"I'd never done a world premiere of an opera," Mentzer said.

Schulze, who saw the opening-night performance called it "incredible." The opera starred tenor Placido Domingo as Emperor Qin, the man who united China and began building the Great Wall more than 2,400 years ago.

"It was a real Chinese collaboration and that was the neatest part," Mentzer said.

Tan Dun, who composed the Oscar-winning score for "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," wrote the music. The opera was directed by the world-famous Chinese film director Zhang Yimou, whose works include "The House of Flying Daggers" and "Hero."

It was a major culture lesson.

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