By Scott MacClelland
If you attended the Metropolitan Opera production of Tan Dun’s The First Emperor, or watched the simulcast, you saw and heard Susanne Mentzer on right stage next to Placido Domingo. But speaking with her you realize right away that she comes with no airs or pretensions. The breadth and depth of her career could make her a diva, but instead she gives a refreshingly candid, even unguarded, interview.
“I’ve never been an awfully ambitious person,” she says. “I didn’t think I would have a career.” The Philadelphia native and Carmel resident explains, “I took lessons as a high school senior. My voice was unwieldy, and loud. Friends made fun of me.”
Mentzer joins Reg Huston (whom she met when both were students at the University of the Pacific), Gracie Poletti, Scott McQuiston and Lydia Lyons for a guest appearance in PacRep’s current stage production, Hello Broadway!. “At UOP I majored in music therapy to work with the handicapped and mentally ill.” With encouragement to go into performance, she came to Carmel Valley to join the opera chorus at Hidden Valley. Then she went to Aspen to sing, and on to the Juilliard School where an agent noticed her during a Pavarotti master class. “I got kind of swept along.” She says she was lucky to be able to work with good people “right off the bat.” She credits timing for much of her success. “But I had to work my butt off. You could say I was one step ahead of the sheriff.”
She has sung opera on four continents, including such houses as La Scala, Vienna Staatsoper, Covent Garden, Chicago Lyric, San Francisco, Houston Grand (where she launched her stage career in 1981), Santa Fe Opera, and others. In April, at the small “wonderful” Madison Opera in Wisconsin, she sang the role—created by Frederica von Stade at San Francisco Opera—of the mother of convicted murderer Joseph DeRocher in the Jake Heggie opera Dead Man Walking. Opening the Met season this September, Mentzer sings Marcellina in a new production of The Marriage of Figaro, with James Levine conducting.
Mentzer also does a lot of concert work. In May she was a soloist for the Oratorio Society of New York in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion at Carnegie Hall. (The performance was reviewed by New York Times senior critic Anthony Tommasini.)
When her son Ben was in junior high school she cut back on her itinerant engagements and settled into teaching posts at Rice and DePaul universities, respectively in Houston and Chicago.
Having achieved a major career, today Mentzer says, “I’m pickier about what I do.” Eclectic could substitute for pickier. “I teach privately, students here and in San Francisco.” She says she loves working with undergrads, “to see them every week, one on one.” She also writes for the Huffington Post about the arts in general. “I’m trying to get people to like classical music.” And she does administrative work for Reg Huston’s S.T.A.R. Foundation.
Susanne Mentzer has appeared in numerous DVDs, including The Last Emperor, and some 25 CD recordings.