Pardon the gush, but we just adore Susannah Biller. She's talented, funny, a former Adler Fellow and has graced our stage several times. Currently, Susannah is entertaining audiences as Despina in Così fan tutte
—onstage through July 1. The San Francisco Examiner
exclaimed that she "shined in one of opera's great comic roles, befitting a Rossini heroine." We wholeheartedly agree.
Welcome back! Recently, you appeared in our productions of Werther, The Makropulos Case, Heart of a Soldier and Carmen. What are some professional highlights you can share with us since you last graced the War Memorial Opera House stage?
There have been so many wonderful productions and companies that helped to promote me, including the great San Francisco Opera. Getting to do The Great Gatsby with Opera Parallele was a tremendous experience especially since it was my first performance outside of the Adler program. My first performance in New York with Gotham Chamber Opera doing Mozart's Il Sogno di Scipione—headed by Neal Goren and directed by the great Christopher Alden—had me singing in nothing but my skivvies and making 12 costume changes in 10 inch heels. It was tough, but an absolute blast! This year I made my Portland Opera debut as Nannetta in Verdi's Falstaff, an opera which is coming to SFO this fall. It is one of my favorite operas to date and I got to work with Chris Mattaliano and Maestro George Manahan who is conducting Dolores Claiborne this fall. There have been so many funny stories and great colleagues that I have gotten to work with in the last two years. It is only the beginning! Can't wait to see what happens in the coming years.
[Susannah as Despina in Così, with Marco Vinco as Don Alfonso.]
Currently SFO audiences can enjoy seeing you as Despina in Così fan tutte. Aside from your amazing red wig, what’s the most rewarding part about playing this feisty role?
What a fun and hilarious role. I am tremendously grateful to Mr. Henkel, Mr. Gockley, and Maestro Luisotti for letting me have this much fun on the War Memorial Stage and get paid for it. If I am honest, the most rewarding part is the audience enjoying themselves and laughing. Of course, we performers appreciate/want applause, but that is not why I do this. My teacher says, "Tell the audience a story. Take them with you on the journey. If you do that, they will love you for it! THAT, is your job!" I would also be lying if I said I didn't love playing the doctor, and especially the notary. You dress up in ridiculous costumes, sing with silly voices, and it's all from Mozart! What a genius!
Your husband, Austin Kness, is a talented baritone. What’s the best part about being married to another opera singer?
I'm a hopeless romantic and a total sap. So to take cliché to the next level, I'm not sure I can list just one, but I will try. Austin is very calm, collected man, and I...am a wild woman! I'm the chatterbox; he is the man that can say one phrase and it changes your life. One of the best parts of being married to an opera singer—other than he gets what I am dealing with on a daily basis—is he is so good at keeping me in the moment and able to see things clearly. He reminds me that there is life outside of music, art, perfecting the craft, etc. My life would be very one-sided and chaotic without him. The yin to my yang...
[With Philippe Sly as Guglielmo and Francesco Demuro as Ferrando.]
What is the greatest musical advice you’ve ever received?
There have been so many great words of advice I have received over the years from many exceptional artists that have been kind enough to share their experiences with me. There are several that come to mind, but the one that sticks out is, "know yourself and don't forget, be sure to 'date' your voice." I got that one from Deborah Birnbaum. We were working through an aria in a coaching when she said this, but over the last two years it has taken on different meanings. Deb never really explained it to me, but I figured I dated in my young adult life successfully...I can figure it out. For me, currently, it is a reminder to pay attention to what my voice needs, listen to my gut and not the 'noise', and spend time every day learning my voice. Sounds simple, but believe me, it isn't!
[With Christel Lötzsch as Dorabella.]
If you could have dinner with five famous people from any time period (past or present), who would they be and why?
Man, this is a tough question! I would want to have Maria Callas there because she, to me, is one the best operatic performers to have lived. I would love to hear her insights about acting, singing, and the operatic life. Fashion designer Alexander McQueen would need to be there too. He is so different and changed the face of fashion during his short life. I would want him to design a dress for me too. President Richard Nixon is another choice. I covered the role of Madame Mao in Nixon in China last summer at SFO during which I read several Nixon biographies and became enamored with his story. I have a hard time deciding between Gilda Radner and Lucille Ball, so I want them both to be there. They are two of the funniest women—I have tremendous respect for their talent and timing. I have watched so much footage of them over the years and know that they would have a lot to say. You know that they would be the life of the party and everyone needs comedy in their lives!
Così fan tutte production photos by Cory Weaver.