Globetrotting wasn’t the goal. Suzanne Hendrix-Case pursued a travel-intensive opera career to gain credibility as a vocal coach. She always wanted to teach.
By a fortuitous turn of events, that desire led the classically-trained singer to perform with the San Francisco Opera, the Lyric Opera of Chicago and Oper Frankfurt in Germany, one of the leading opera houses in Europe.
After several years as a self-employed opera singer, Hendrix-Case has finally settled in at her first full-time, college-level teaching job as an assistant professor of voice at Morningside College.
Hendrix-Case is Siouxland Public Media’s Artist of the Month. She will be performing in a radio variety show at Eppley Auditorium on Friday, April 21 for Siouxland Public Media’s annual spring fund drive.
The live broadcast will take place from 10 a.m. to noon. It is free and open to the public.
KARSYN: So you didn’t set out to have a career in opera singing? That wasn’t the goal?
HENDRIX-CASE: No, not at all. (Laughs.) As it turned out, I have a very unique voice type. People who sing the type of opera that I do, which would be dramatic mezzo-soprano (repertoire), are few and far between. When you have that kind of voice, you stand out. You get more opportunities a little bit easier than a regular lyric soprano, which there are many of. (Laughs.)
KARSYN: When did you find out that you could sing like that?
HENDRIX-CASE: It took years. I did my undergraduate and master’s degrees at University of Northern Iowa, and through that time, I think we knew I had a nice voice. The general rule for singing is – the larger and lower your voice is, the longer it takes to develop. I have basically the largest and lowest female type voice that there is so it wasn’t until I was maybe 27 that it was sort like the bottom dropped out of my voice. You could compare it to puberty in a teenage boy. (Laughs.) All of a sudden my voice became much louder and much darker. We said, “Oh, I think this was what the problem was and why it was taking so long.” Which is why I hadn’t aspired to become an opera singer because we didn’t really know that the native talent was there until I was older.
KARSYN: Well, how old are you now?
HENDRIX-CASE: I’ve been singing this repertoire for about 10 years. So you can probably do the math. (Laughs.)
KARSYN: And does your voice keep changing as you get older?
HENDRIX-CASE: It does actually. You can’t in this fach, which is the word F-A-C-H – it’s a German word for voice types – so for my voice type, my fach – you can’t expect somebody to be mature and sing the rep that’s appropriate for them until they’re 35. Right now is when I’m finally kind of settling into the swing of things. I should be slowly maybe improving in small increments until, potentially even 50. Dolora Zajick is probably the most famous mezzo-soprano in my voice type right now in the world. I believe she’s in her 60s and she still sounds fresh as a daisy. Because she’s amazing. If managed correctly, my voice type has quite a bit of longevity.
KARSYN: You’ve traveled a lot in your career, especially in 2014 when you were performing in Wichita, Kansas; Memphis, Tennessee; Geneva, Switzerland; San Francisco and Chicago. I’m sure you get asked this all the time, but logistically, how does that work? Where do you live?
HENDRIX-CASE: Yeah, 2013-2014 was very busy. It happened to be Wagner’s 200th birthday. Everybody was doing Wagner, which for me, is perfect. That is the exact type of repertoire that I sing. And so, I think that year I had maybe a total of three and a half months at home.
Kansas City, which is where I was at the time, was cheap enough that keeping an apartment there was not such a problem. I had friends coming in and checking on it and making sure nothing was happening while I was gone. It’s tricky. You spend a lot of time on Facebook messaging people and Skyping and that kind of thing.
KARSYN: Otherwise, are you like living out of a hotel then when you’re out performing?
HENDRIX-CASE: Sometimes. Some of the jobs are hotels. Other times, we get long-term apartment rentals. Airbnb has been very useful for opera singers. For instance, last year in Frankfurt, I lived in the top-story apartment of this three-level house. The guy in the middle level owned it, and actually, his father was a famous opera singer. Randomly. Which was strange. I had my own kitchen, washing machine, living room, bedroom. I really had my own apartment, but with two small suitcases worth of stuff for two months.
KARSYN: Have you met some interesting people, then, through your performing and doing Airbnb when you’re out there and get to stay with people?
HENDRIX-CASE: You meet a lot of characters. Also, I’ve been lucky that I’ve been in a lot of the big, international (opera) houses. I’ve worked with some really famous opera singers.
My first truly professional job – not as a young artist – would have been at San Francisco Opera and I was in the Die Walküre there. Nina Stemme was singing her first Brünnhilde in Valkyrie. She is one of the pre-eminent dramatic sopranos in the world right now. That was nice and intimidating to work with her my first time out. (Laughs.) But she’s lovely, and I was really fortunate.
Speight Jenkins in the Wagner world – he just recently retired – he ran Seattle Opera for years. I was involved in his last ring cycle. I was really lucky that he took me in in his last couple years he was working and made me part of his organization.
KARSYN: So you said you’ve really only been doing opera for a good 10 years at this point. How did the reality of being an opera singer line up with your expectations? Or what did you think it would be, and what did you actually find?
HENDRIX-CASE: I think I was lucky because I was a little older than most of my friends. I really didn’t start going out and doing things until I was 30 for the part. It sounds glamorous, but there are a lot of kind of hard realities when you’re in Austria for three months. My husband and I – I was singing at Vienna State Opera for a three-month span – and we were engaged. It was a last-minute job, two-week’s notice. I was planning my wedding from Vienna over the Internet, and that’s not the kind of thing I think you imagine for your life. Oh, I’m going to get married and plan my wedding on a different continent.
KARSYN: It sounds fun like, “Oh, I planned my wedding from Vienna.”
HENDRIX-CASE: It sounds fun. It was stressful when nobody responded to emails. I thought, “How am I supposed to order a cake? We need a cake.” You learn to work through it. You learn a lot of skills on the the fly.
KARSYN: Why did you switch from a full performance schedule to teaching.
HENDRIX-CASE: The realities of the lifestyle. (Laughs.) As I mentioned, I’m married, and I think, yeah, that planning the wedding from Austria was just sort of – this is ridiculous. And I like to spend time with my husband and my dog. (Laughs.) And those types of things were enticing. Also, I always wanted to teach.
I think, especially if you’re in a creative field, you have to decide what is meaningful to you in your life, and I know a lot of people that find meaning in performing and, to them, what they bring to the audience is very fulfilling. But for me, I find that working with students is significantly more fulfilling than the performing. So knowing that there is a way I could be settled, still have opportunities to go off and sing occasionally, but also have that extra element of working with young people, which I find fulfilling, I think it just all seemed to make sense.
KARSYN: Do you have any performances coming up?
HENDRIX-CASE: I actually just won an award from the Gerda Lissner Foundation in New York, and as part of that, I have to make the terrible hardship of singing in a recital at Carnegie Hall at the end of April. (Laughs.) So I’m heading back to New York in a couple weeks. I’ll be singing in that recital. And then, in June, I’m singing in an opera with Wichita Grand Opera. They’ve helped me a lot through the early stages of my career, and that’s going to be “Noah’s Flood” with Sam Ramey, who is one of the most famous opera singers from kind of the previous generation. He’s still amazing. I’ve seen him sing recently. I am playing his wife. (Laughs.) Which happens in opera frequently. But it’s exciting to get to work with him and really work with him, not just in the chorus.
KARSYN: At Carnegie Hall, will that be your first time singing there?
HENDRIX-CASE: Yes, that will be my first time. (Laughs.) That’s going to be kind of a fun thing to add to the resume.
KARSYN: What is one of the highlights of your career? You know, one of the places that it’s like, “Oh, my gosh, I’m standing on stage at…”
HENDRIX-CASE: I think the first time it happened was San Francisco Opera because that was very early in my career. I was in the young artists program there. The house is just beautiful. If you’ve seen “Pretty Woman,” that’s where he takes her to the opera in San Francisco. There’s a reason why they pick that opera house. And then I would say also Vienna State Opera. Just because there’s such a history at that opera house.