“That sounds great, Leah,” a passing stage hand calls. “Are they going to let you use that in the show?”
“No, but I wish,” Leah Partridge shrugs, then laughs. The strangely ethereal combination of the banjo, Partridge’s sweet soprano voice, and her sandals tapping the floor as she moves through the empty school hallway embody the reasons why she is performing the title role in Ash Lawn Opera’s summer production of the American classic opera Susannah.
Composed by Carlisle Floyd in 1955, the piece, based on the biblical story of Susannah and the Elders, is one of the most performed American operas, second only to Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess.
“It’s the great American opera,” said Michelle Krisel, general and artistic director of ALO. “I had this challenge of picking a piece that means so much to me, and that is so famous among the opera world, and finding a way to get the general public interested.”
Susannah was the obvious choice. As a vocal coach, Krisel had experience with the piece and was struck by Floyd’s eloquent nods to the burgeoning feminist movement in the 1950s and its radical commentary on the hypocrisy of McCarthyism. Set in a fictional small town in Appalachia, the plot follows an exceptionally beautiful woman, Susannah, as her dreams of “doing something bigger” with her life are threatened by the narrow-minded town elders and a lonely itinerant preacher, who label her as a degenerate seductress.
Prior to beginning production, which includes three and a half weeks of rehearsal and vocal coaching and one week of performances, the 30 cast members converged in Charlottesville from all over the country, having already perfected their individual parts.
“Our task now is to put it all together,” Krisel explained. “We do it layer by layer—first the singing, then the blocking, then lighting, and so on.”
The process is enormously time-consuming—the cast rehearses at Charlottesville High School from 9am until 4pm—and then the apprentice singers, who cover for the lead performers and must learn more than one part, head to Krisel’s home for extra practice late into the evening.
In addition, Krisel is tasked with marketing the performance to the community. The cover singers have visited the UVA-Wise campus to bring the story to life in its intended setting in the heart of the Appalachian mountains, and a number of pop-up performances will offer locals a convenient way to catch a glimpse of what is in store.
“All you have to do is see five minutes of it, and you will love it,” Krisel said.
Partridge agreed. “It’s important to remember that opera is art, not entertainment,” said the Georgia native, her southern accent pulling at her words. “But with Susannah, you can just show up, not know anything about it, and you’re going to get it without having to work for it.”
In an effort to further update the opera and attract new audiences, Krisel decided to design all costumes and sets with a contemporary look, like selecting jeans and flannel shirts over typical period garb, in hope that tweaking these details will allow the opera’s message to reach a larger population and foster an interest in operas in general.
“A well-written opera needs no updating but it makes the message more immediate,” she said.
Susannah’s widespread appeal (even among non opera-goers) is largely due to Floyd’s deeply resonant story line and melodious composition. It is concise and fast-paced like a musical, with a theme that is arguably universal.
“Susannah is really all of us,” Partridge said. “Everybody can relate to her in that we all hope and believe that we can do something different.”
Although some may relate to the story more than others, for Partridge, whose conservative Southern upbringing fits this role like a Georgia peach fits a buttery pie crust, the parable sends a number of messages that cut to the core of society’s ills and discusses perceptions of beauty, the effects of a mob mentality, assimilation, community standards, sexuality, and even violence.
Finally settling back in a chair, Partridge tips her head back and lovingly sets her banjo down beside her. She is done with rehearsal for the day, but will likely go home and study the part more. She is having difficulty with the ending, and hopes that her portrayal will resound with audiences the way it has encompassed her thoughts for the past few weeks.
“I always hope in every character that I play that the audience leaves feeling something for them,” she said. “I want people to see Susannah’s innocence and her possibilities, because that is who she is.”