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Susanne Mentzer Headshot

A Diva's Life?

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This week I am singing the alto part in Beethoven's Missa Solemnis with the Tucson Symphony. There is a quartet of soloists: soprano, tenor, bass and my part, which is really for a contralto. I am a mezzo-soprano. Frequently, opera singers perform oratorios -- sacred works with orchestra, chorus and at times, soloists. (spell check almost wrote "scared works.") The orchestra is onstage as opposed to an opera when the orchestra is in the pit below. This makes singing more taxing as one is trying to carry over both the orchestra and chorus.

My trip here on Wednesday was not without incident. The plane for my two-hour trip to Tucson from Houston had to make an emergency landing in the west Texas town of San Angelo for an ill passenger. These things do happen and we were all concerned for the elderly gentleman. It is good to know that commercial airlines can do this. We were told we would take off in a few minutes and continue on to Tucson, where I was to have an orchestra rehearsal that evening. We were asked to exit the plane and everyone ran to an electrical outlet to charge their telephones in order to make calls.

Six hours later, we were put on another plane that was flown in, as there was a problem with the original plane. The San Angelo airport was as welcoming as it could be; it has two gates, numerous power outlets as referenced above, and one Chinese restaurant. The security line was nil and the workers were very sweet.

However, I missed my rehearsal. This left one rehearsal last evening.

This is a piece that I do not quite get. Try as I might to see the overwhelming emotion in this piece (it IS Beethoven, for heaven's sake), I am ashamed to admit it is lost on me. Not only is it long-winded and loud, after a while it sounds the same. Case in point, I have performed it before but when I picked up the score not one note was familiar. Where the excitement lies is in the extremely challenging choral work, especially for the sopranos who have to hang out so high all the time. It is also not an easy piece. If one stops counting, they are stuck. It is also ungrateful to sing and my part sits in the basement much of the time.

The auditorium is huge, and although the players and chorus are great the hall soaks up the sound and makes one feel like she is singing into a ball of cotton. Two of the other soloists are people I have never sung with before. (I can just hear my dad saying, "kwitcherbellyachin.")

Having one rehearsal reminded me of the many times I sang in Europe on a day's notice. Since there are many opera companies and Europe is relatively small in physical size, this is a common practice when there is a cancellation or an opera in repertoire with a cast change. I frequently sang the role of Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro with little or no rehearsal. This was the type of role which one could easily do, since the story and staging is usually pretty straightforward.

Much harder was the huge role of Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier at the Vienna Staatsoper where two ladies sang the Marschallin for different performances and I only met one before hitting the stage. Basically an assistant stage director showed me the moves and I was fitted for a costume. Add water and stir.

At the performance I jumped into bed with the Marschallin for the first scene (Did I mention that Octavian is a trouser role?) and it was a runaway train from there on.

This is not the way one wants to perform too often, as it is pretty hard on the nerves. Can you imagine never seeing the stage, trying out the acoustics, working with the conductor or meeting your fellow singers? I think my brain just went into über calm and let the evening take me away. I was a lot younger then. You would think it would be easier now to sing on little rehearsal. Unfortunately, ignorance was bliss. I know more now.

Back to Tucson... it is very dry here. My voice feels like sandpaper from lack of humidity. I will start forcing water at least three hours before the performance in order for it to process though my system and hopefully reach my vocal folds.

I could go sightseeing but it is very windy outside and I fear the dust and dryness will hijack my sinuses. Ask anyone who knows me and they will tell you I am not what one would call a paranoid singer, either.

One singer I know says TTMAR "take the money and run." Sometimes a job is just a job. We four soloists had to give ourselves a pep talk last night. We want to give the audience a great experience but it will be a challenge since we are not particularly enamored of the piece or the hall. The soprano mentioned the recent passing of her grandfather so she will think of him while singing. So, although I will struggle tonight and Sunday, and I will also grouch and moan about the dryness and the hall, and the piece, I will give my 150 percent for the audience who will come and have no awareness of these things and are just looking to experience the Missa Solemnis.

After it is over I will leave my hotel at 3:45 a.m. Monday to catch a flight back to Houston and a day of teaching and rehearsals for next week's recitals.

The orchestra manager advised us that parking will be tight since the Monster Truck event is in town. Come to think of it, there is that incredible Benedictus movement with the violin solo tugging at my emotions. Maybe Beethoven actually intended to just have one moment of clarity and calm in all that ruckus? I'll take it.