Susanna MacRae, soprano

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

There are many people who have had a huge influence on my musical life, too many to list here. But the biggest influence is an easy one to recognise: my mother, Bridget. She is a wonderful musician, a pianist and accompanist who has always been incredibly modest about her own talents. She would tell me stories of her days at music college (the Royal College of Music where I would later study) and at Wells Cathedral School (again I would follow her in that!). Later she was the first director of the rescued concert hall in Guernsey, St James, where I would hear world-class musicians in concerts on Saturday nights as soloists, or in orchestras and choirs. I had so much exposure to music in so many positive settings it really isn’t a surprise that I pursued it as my career. My earliest memories of music are lying underneath our grand piano as a child staring up in awe at the huge instrument, listening to Brahms, Mozart or my Mum’s favourite Bach prelude which she always warms up with today!

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

When I was studying at the RCM I was very focussed on piano. However, I began to rediscover my love of singing and came to the realisation in Year 2 of my degree that it was actually singing, and specifically opera where my heart really set on fire. The greatest challenge for me then was gaining the necessary skills, contacts and finding the time to make that dream a reality. In recent years, of course, I’m sure that all musicians would say that the Covid pandemic was an extremely challenging time. For me it provided a much needed break from the relentless auditioning and allowed me to reflect on my artistic integrity, I feel it has changed many things about how I approach music making.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

My recent album of David Braid songs. We worked hard to achieve a lyrical but relaxed style which I think comes across really well in the quality of the recording. I admire David’s work hugely, he has a talent for setting text and his songs are well worth a listen!

Which particular works/composers do you think you perform best?

Working with living composers is where I really come alive. I’m currently working on the role of German Child in Noah Max’s upcoming premiere of ‘A Child in Striped Pyjamas’, which has its first performances in January 2023 at The Cockpit Theatre in London. It’s been an incredible journey working with Noah on this piece; working with the extremes of vocal capabilities and bringing to life what he has in his head. For me, this is the most thrilling way of making music, it comes with no weight of interpretational history and the performer becomes the vessel of artistic expression. I also adore Handel coloratura, and the florid music of Vivaldi and Hasse, I always have so much fun with them!

What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?
I love meeting new people, hearing their stories and their motivations in life. That inspires me when acting on the stage. I walk a lot with my dog, as well as training her in agility and that always gives me much needed space from music to come back to it with a fresh mind!
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
As an opera singer I am naturally guided in this by the roles available from other companies. In my own company, Liberata Collective, we make our repertoire choices by carefully selecting early opera with sublime music and stage appeal (with the right combination of roles for our singers of course!). As a Community Interest Company serving Cultural Education and the Performing Arts, Liberata Collective is committed to the cultural preservation of historical performance practices and its overarching goal is to produce performances that give audiences an experience as close as possible to that which they would have enjoyed in 18th century London. Most significantly we perform with Baroque Gesture, a style rarely seen on the stage since that period, which brings a unique intensity and sense of intrigue to our productions.In my song recital collaborations, my pianist Claire Habbershaw and I have dynamic and fascinating discussions at the beginning of each season curating our programmes for the season ahead. This season we are offering two programmes which are heavily inspired by poetry and composers which we believe need more stage time. And I’m always on the lookout for new composers to collaborate with!
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
I don’t. I tend to love audiences rather than venues – they can really make or break a concert!
What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music’s audiences?
Normalising classical music in primary schools and engaging with children throughout school is crucial. Classical music doesn’t need to be complicated, children connect with it instantly when granted access to it.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
The concert disasters seem to spring most readily to my mind! As a pianist, I wore heels, which once part way through a concert became stuck in the heating grate underneath the piano, that was a very memorable concert – but not for the right reasons! Another time a piano lid slammed shut on my fingers mid-Beethoven trio! Similarly, a power cut during a performance of Carmen, a fisherman who wondered on stage during an Acis & Galatea on the beach, an electric piano which fell off the stand during an aria concert..I could go on!
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
Collaborating with other artists and creating new art which excites and exhilarates audiences. If your performance moves just one person in the audience, that, for me, is success.
What advice would you give to young/aspiring musicians?
Get involved in as many things as you can, find the repertoire and stories which motivate you and bring these things to your audiences. Not everyone will love you; go where you are loved.

What’s the one thing in the music industry we’re not talking about which you think we should be?

How to keep music financially viable and sustainable. We should be teaching young performers how to manage their finances, how to set up their own businesses and be their own promoters.

What is your most treasured possession?

My personal diary, it contains all the adventures of my career so far, written each day for 20 years! It’s fascinating to see the twists and turns of this career, often when I thought a door had been firmly closed, another one would open in the most unexpected of places.

Susanna MacRae performs the role of German Child in Noah Max’s new opera ‘A Child in Striped Pyjamas’, which opens at the Cockpit Theatre on 11 January. Further details/tickets

Susanna MacRae graduated from the Royal College of Music, London, where she studied with Jeffrey Stewart (Vocal Studies) and Nigel Clayton (Piano). She enjoys a busy performance schedule across the U.K. and Europe. Upcoming performances include; premiering the role of German Child in Noah Max’s ‘A Child in Striped Pyjamas’ in collaboration with Echo Ensemble, singing the role of Dorinda in Liberata Collective’s production of Handel’s Orlando at Buxton International Festival in collaboration with Ensemble Hesperi and Adrian Butterfield, the role of Anne (Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress) for Aylesbury Opera and Zerlina (Mozart’s Don Giovanni) for Arcadian Opera. Last season highlights included covering solo roles at Longborough Festival Opera for their productions of La Liberazione di Ruggiero (Caccini) and Freya Waley-Cohen’s Spell Book as well as joining the chorus for Bizet’s Carmen, First Lady for Arcadian Opera (Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte) and premiering David Braid’s work “Journey Time” at The Brunel Museum (Thames Festival).

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Photo credit: Nick Rutter