Following Her Own Path: Mezzo Susan Platts Has Built an Enviable Reputation as a Dramatic Singer without Setting Foot on the Opera Stage

By Eatock, Colin | Opera Canada, September-October 2005 | Go to article overview

Following Her Own Path: Mezzo Susan Platts Has Built an Enviable Reputation as a Dramatic Singer without Setting Foot on the Opera Stage


Eatock, Colin, Opera Canada


SO you want to be a professional singer, do you? Well then, listen up, because here's how it's done.

First, you must start your musical education young--ideally, before the age of five. Then, after years of conservatory training, you must enroll in a degree program in a university music department. After university, you'll require further study and experience, gained through a training program offered by a major opera company. Competitions are also de rigeur. you must enter all you can, and you'd better pick up a few prestigious prizes along the way if you want anyone to take you seriously. Most importantly, you must keep yourself focussed on an operatic career. Only on the operatic stage will you find fame and fortune.

None of the above applies, though, if you happen to be Susan Platts. The Canadian mezzo-soprano who's taking the world's concert halls by storm hasn't really done any of these things. Yet The New York Times has called her "consistently satisfying, with a lush, dark tone." The Chicago Tribune praised her "ripe tonal beauty and feeling." And Toronto's Globe and Mail has hailed her as "the next Maureen Forrester."

The National Post's claim that Platts came "out of nowhere" is perhaps a little over the top, yet the phrase captures the musical world's astonishment at her sudden success. Platts was born in the U.K., but grew up in Victoria, B.C., where she began taking voice lessons at the late age of 16. She didn't attend a university or a conservatory, but continued her studies privately, making her professional debut just five years later. Now, at the age of 32, she lives in Ontario, and on a busy day this summer--just as she was moving from Toronto to a new home in Kitchener, Ont.--she found an hour to sit down in a cafe and talk about her rise to international acclaim.

"My parents were folk musicians, and always sang folk music around the house," she begins. "But I never had piano lessons or anything like that when I was young, and when I started singing, I couldn't read music. I suspect that if I had taken violin or piano as a child, I might have given up before I started to sing. I'm just happy that it all worked out the way it did, because I love singing so much."

She continues, with down-to-earth candor: "I was never a really ambitious person--I didn't do the competition circuit. I did a few local festivals, just to get some performance opportunities. And then my mother sent a tape to Howard Dyck."

Dyck, the conductor of the Kitchener-Waterloo Philharmonic Choir (and also well known as the host of the CBC's Saturday Afternoon at the Opera), remembers the incident well. "I got a phone call from Susan's mother, who said her daughter was very talented. She asked me if I knew of any summer workshop programs for young singers, and I had a few suggestions. Then, a couple of weeks later, I received a cassette in the mail. It was a poorly produced thing, made in a living room. I heard about 10 seconds of it, and said to my wife, 'Good heavens, what a voice!' I was just in the process of finalizing my soloists with the choir for next year, and I decided to give Susan a try."

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

"It was Bruckner's Mass in D Minor," she recalls, as though it all happened yesterday, "and I only had about 10 bars to sing--and he also hired me to tour with him to Europe. He was a great conductor to have my first orchestral experience with, because I was so nervous in rehearsal. It was a big orchestra, and the hall was huge, and I just couldn't make any sound. Howard said, 'You just need to get your confidence up, and you'll be fine.' So we got together and went over the music, and I was okay."

After that, one thing led to another. "I continued my studies with Alexandra Browing, in Victoria," she explains. "And I did some study with Christa Ludwig for a couple of summers, in France and in Chicago. Howard recommended me to Helmuth Rilling, and I subsequently got a whole lot of concerts. …

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