Opportunity Knocks

Novice Soprano Susanna Uher Gets The Chance Of A Lifetime In Arizona Opera's 'Roméo et Juliette'

By Margaret Regan

FIVE YEARS AGO, Susanna Uher was singing the part of Marian the Librarian in a high-school production of The Music Man.

This Saturday night, she'll sing the lead female role in Arizona Opera's production of Roméo et Juliette, the 1867 Gounod work that opens the company's season.

Review "I'm 22 years old: That's a big part for someone my age," the soprano acknowledged. "I just graduated in May from the conservatory. I'm so grateful I've been given the chance to work with such a fabulous company, and to work with world-renowned conductors and singers."

If Uher is gushing, she can be forgiven. It's not every young singer who makes the leap from Marian to Juliette, from high-school auditorium to professional concert hall, in just five years. She took a break between intensive rehearsals last week and perched herself on a high stool in Arizona Opera's costume shop, a nearby seamstress busily stitching a lavender shawl for Juliette's bedroom scene. As she told the story of the serendipitous events that brought her here, her young face registered the same kind of excitement that might well have transformed Juliette's.

Growing up in the East Bay community of Castro Valley, near San Francisco, Uher had sung in school choruses and studied piano and flute. And even though her mother was a professional musician, she had never considered a career in music. As a matter of fact, her plan was to become a high-school history teacher. Then came The Music Man.

"A friend of mine was studying with the singer Pamela Hicks and Pamela came to see her in the musical," Uher said. "Afterward she showed an interest in my voice. I asked her if I could study with her."

Two weeks after her first lesson, Uher sang the Mozart aria "Voi che sapete" at a festival competition. A judge asked her where she planned to study voice. When she told him she had no such plans, he became adamant. She should audition, he said, and soon, at the University of the Pacific.

"What was there to lose?" Uher thought, and off she went to her first dead-serious audition. The result: an offer of admission and a "big scholarship."

Uher complemented her voice studies at UOP with a weekend job at San Francisco Opera. For four years, she waited on customers in the gift shop before the concerts and at intermission, but each time the singing started she shut down her cash register and flew into the seats. She heard all the great contemporary singers, from Placido Domingo to Kiri Te Kanawa, and saw nearly all the major operas. Holding a job two hours away from college while studying full time "was hard," she said, "but you have to give 100 percent if this is what you want to do."

Meantime she kept up her festival competitions, and it was at the McAllister Awards Congress in August last year that she first met Glynn Ross, Arizona Opera's general director, who will retire at the end of this season. After Uher made it into the top 10, Ross offered her the role of Ecco in last season's production of Ariadne auf Naxos. She had sung the part before in community opera in Stockton, Calif., but this was different. "I was so thrilled," she remembered.

Her professional debut in Ariadne came in the middle of her busy senior year at the conservatory, but it also led to the much bigger part of Juliette. In between rehearsals, "Mr. Ross said he'd like me to sing some things. I sang two Italian and two French pieces. That day my voice felt good. Then he said, 'If you'd like to consider singing Juliette...' It was an even bigger shock."

Though the Arizona Opera production has only one Roméo, James Miller, Uher shares the part of Juliette with Robin Lee Parkin, who'll sing Friday evening and Sunday afternoon. (Uher reprises her part in Phoenix next weekend.) The opera in five acts, sung in French with English surtitles, adds some characters to Shakespeare's list and cuts others, for a total of 12 soloists. It curtails some of the play's scenes, but adds a crucial one in the last act to permit its dying lovers to sing a demanding 20-minute farewell, a duet that's considered the opera's highlight. But the beloved balcony scene is intact, translated from drama to opera via Roméo's "Ah, léve-toi, soleil." James Lucas directs, and Michel Singher conducts.

The opera resurrected Gounod's reputation, which had faltered since the success of his 1859 Faust. But for this production's young Juliette, the opera is more birth than resurrection.

"I'd rather be doing this than anything else," she said. "It's like a huge gift that's been bestowed on me. Anyone in my shoes would feel overwhelmed. I'm appreciative of the opportunity."

Arizona Opera presents Roméo et Juliette at the TCC Music Hall, 260 S. Church Ave. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, October 17 and 18, and at 2 p.m. Sunday, October 19. Tickets range from $14 to $56. For information or reservations, call 293-4336. TW

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