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Uniter of voices plays key role for SFO

Chorus master Susanne Sheston is in charge of getting chorus singers ready to perform at the Santa Fe Opera. Photo Credit - Courtesy Of Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera
Chorus master Susanne Sheston is in charge of getting chorus singers ready to perform at the Santa Fe Opera. Photo Credit - Courtesy Of Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera
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SANTA FE — Susanne Sheston is one of those faceless, behind-the-scenes people at the Santa Fe Opera whose role is critical to the musical quality of a production.

In Sheston’s case, her job is key to the success of all five of the opera productions. She is the SFO’s chorus master.

“For each show I’m in charge of making sure the choir is well prepared musically and they’ve memorized their part and the musical style is (appropriate) for the different pieces,” she said. “I’m definitely the liaison between the chorus and the conductor.”

The 2012 summer festival season is Sheston’s fifth with the SFO, and her busiest. One reason is that all five operas have longer parts for each of the choruses than usual and, more important, that means the chorus is more prominent as a character.

In four of the five operas this summer the choruses have a role, Sheston said.

“King Roger,” she said, is the big choral showpiece of all five operas. The production has a combined chorus of 39 vocal apprentices plus 21 voices of the Santa Fe Desert Chorale.

“They’re on stage for the entire first act and also have a big part in the second act,” Sheston said.

Her job requires her to send instructions on the music to all 60 singers. Initially she hears them singing in two separate groups — the apprentices and the Desert Chorale. At that point, Sheston said, it’s a matter of guessing how they will sound when she hears them singing as a single unit.

“That’s part of the puzzle,” she said, “and imagining in my internal ear how it will all fit together.”

Sheston may have to make adjustments when she rehearses the combined choruses in the same room.

“Ideally, it sounds great and I can hand the group over to the conductor and the conductor takes charge from there,” she said.

Once the conductor is involved, Sheston is available to discuss what the conductor’s musical choices are for the chorus.

“Once he arrives and is rehearsing with the chorus, that’s the point I would defer to the choices he makes,” she said.

As she put it, the conductor’s choices may mean “how the broader piece should sound, how fast is a section going to go … should it be slow at the end of a phrase or keep the tempo moving.”

Evan Rogister, the SFO conductor of “King Roger,” said he found it remarkable “how beautifully prepared the chorus was for (the opera) in Polish on Day 1. That speaks to an extremely admirable level of musicianship.”

The opera is sung in Polish.

Neither she nor the chorus members, Sheston said, had worked in Polish before preparing for “King Roger.”

Rogister noted that Sheston must work with apprentices, singers who are on the brink of professional careers; apprentices do not typically make up an opera chorus.

Sheston’s main instrument is piano. She received a bachelor’s degree from Simpson College in Iowa, a master’s in piano performance from the Univeristy of Missouri-Kansas City and holds a doctorate in conducting from the University of Oklahoma.

She was the chorus master for the Des Moines Opera and currently is the chorus master for the Utah Opera and the Utah Symphony.

Rogister said Sheston’s enthusiasm for her work “is unending. I think that she’s fascinated with expression in very small details, which is rare in any musician.”

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