Fine Arts: Charles City native hitting the right notes with the Metropolitan Opera

By James Grob, jgrob@charlescitypress.com

How does someone from Charles City, Iowa, get to the world-renowned Metropolitan Opera in New York City?

The answer to the joke is, of course, “practice.”

“I learned that from a band teacher in Charles City a long time ago,” said Charles City native — and mezzo-soprano — Suzanne Hendrix-Case, who is currently signing with the prestigious “Met.”

“I think it’s kind of funny, because I really started singing because I was interested in teaching,” said Hendrix-Case, who is a 1997 grad of Charles City High School. “I was trying to get some singing experience before I started teaching. I don’t know that I went into it expecting to make it a career, so it’s just kind of strange, backing into it like this.”

The Metropolitan Opera is the largest classical music organization in North America. It presents more than 25 different operas each year from late September through May. Hendrix-Case said the season typically runs about the same as a school year.

Currently, she is under contract as an understudy for the opera “Die Walkure.”

“As an understudy, I go to all the rehearsals, but I should not be going onstage unless something happens,” Hendrix-Case said. She’s ready to go if another singer is sick or unable to perform for some other reason. “It’s nice to get to go on, but I don’t want something bad to happen to somebody.”

In the fall she will return and will be under contract for the opera “Aknaten.” She will be on stage for that show.

“That’s my debut,” she said.

The operas are presented in a rotating repertory schedule, with up to seven performances of four different works staged each week. Performances are given in the evening Monday through Saturday. Hendrix-Case said each show runs a couple months at a time. She is there specifically for “Die Walkure” for five weeks, then she’ll go home for three weeks, then go back for two more shows in March in April.

The “home” she refers to is Sioux City, where she works at Morningside as assistant professor of music. There, she teaches studio voice lessons, and taught double lessons before she left and will be teaching double lessons when she gets home.

“All of my juniors and seniors who have to do recitals, we’ll squish those into three weeks,” she said, and added that she keeps in touch with students via Skype and other media platforms while she’s in New York.

Hendrix-Case has a Bachelor’s of Music Education from the University of Northern Iowa, a Masters of Music – Vocal Performance from the University of Northern Iowa, and a Doctorate of Musical Arts – Vocal Performance from the University of Missouri, Kansas City Conservatory. She has been a part of Lyric Opera of Chicago, Vienna State Opera, and San Francisco Opera, among others.

“I think people think it’s all just fun and glamour, but it’s not, it’s hours in the practice room,” she said. “People often compare singing opera to training as an Olympic athlete, and it’s really not so different — you’re essentially trying to optimize your body to something that’s very specific.”

At Charles City, Hendrix-Case participated in concert choir, swing choir, orchestra,  band, speech and drama. She performed in several musicals, and was part of four All-State speech casts: two choral readings and ensemble acts and was a member of the 1996 All-State Choir.

“I was in the band program, the choir program, and I was in theatre a lot, too,” she said.

Her parents, Ray and Betty, still live in the area and are currently taking care of her dog while she’s in New York. Hendrix-Case said they were always very supportive — and continue to be.

“We listened to a lot of classical music when I was a kid, in the car and elsewhere, because it was the one thing that no one found super-offensive,” she said. “No one in the family could agree on what kind of music to listen to, and classical music was the only type of music that everyone found to be sort of OK.”

Hendrix-Case said that in about sixth grade she thought she wanted to be a band teacher.

“In junior high, I realized I was no longer practicing the french horn, so that was a bad idea,” she said.

Once, while listening to a recording of musician Wynton Marsalis performing with a soprano, she asked her mother if the soprano “gets paid to sing.” The answer was yes.

“I thought that was kind of crazy,” Hendrix-Case said.

So her parents signed her up for voice lessons, and then she went to a music camp in Simpson College for young people interested in opera. She saw that all the teachers were opera singers who ended up teaching in college — so she thought she’d cut out the middle part and just go straight into teaching.

“I decided to forget the opera singing and just get my education degree,” Hendrix-Case said. “I thought I’d just go and teach. And so what am I doing? So we can see how much my 16-year-old self knew. I am now doing the thing I was trying to avoid.”

She said that good tutelage is one of the most important things to becoming a good singer.

“I think the biggest thing is finding a really good voice teacher,” she said. “And listening — lots of listening. Figure out what you like and don’t like, and who’s good and why.”

Hendrix-Case said that the teaching she received at Charles City pointed her in the right direction.

“I just think I was really fortunate to have strong teachers in those courses when I went through school,” she said. “I definitely would not be doing this had my experience in the public school not been what it was.”

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