From Susanne Sheston's "office" at the Santa Fe Opera, one can see the pastel foothills around Tesuque and bask in the afternoon sunlight. We are sitting in the partial shade near the edge of the dining area's canopy. As we talk, the tables around us fill with high school students—members of the opera's Young Voices program—and the apprentice singers, who chat away animatedly as they pore over musical scores, frequently interrupt us with iterations of "do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, si, do," and spontaneously burst into song.
"This is sort of my desk," Sheston says, laughing.
Sheston is SFO's fourth-year returning chorus master. Her duties include directing the opera's supporting singers and, in the event that a show's conductor takes ill, stepping in to lead the orchestra.
"This is a really fun position that I have here," Sheston says. "I get to work with the apprentice artists of the Santa Fe Opera, and they are a really extraordinary group of young singers that are hired from all over the country." In fact, she says, the constantly changing nature of the group is part of what makes her job exciting.
When the opera is out of season, Sheston lives in Salt Lake City, Utah, where she directs the choruses of the Utah Opera and Utah Symphony. Recently, Sheston worked on Utah Opera's productions of Falstaff, Little Women, and Hänsel und Gretel. While the positions are very similar, she says, her Utah job involves more time spent doing administrative work: casting, auditioning and desk work.
"I sit at my desk a lot more than I do here," Sheston says. "I don't have a desk here, and I don't need one, which is fantastic…here, my work is all concentrated on artistic preparation; there, it's a combination of artistic and administrative."
The Utah Opera produces four operas per season, and its chorus is what Sheston describes as semi-professional—members receive stipends, but singing isn't their primary means of supporting themselves—as opposed to SFO's, which is made up of emerging professional artists. Thus, she says, SFR "creates this ensemble that can do anything."
"They bring such enthusiasm and fresh energy that it's just fun to be around that," Sheston says.
Growing up in Iowa, Sheston was exposed to music as a child. Her mother was a high school music teacher so, from an early age, Sheston says, she would hear her mother teaching piano or guitar lessons, or hear music at church functions. As a 4-year-old "just able to climb up on the piano bench," she says, she began learning piano, which was her favorite.
"I think probably my first public performance was as a singer, though," Sheston says. "I sang a Sesame Street song."
Sheston's whole family was very musical, and she decided as a youngster to pursue music as a career. She studied piano performance at Simpson College, then continued studying piano at University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music and Dance and, ultimately, wound up studying conducting at University of Oklahoma in Oklahoma City.
By then, Sheston had determined that she wanted to teach music at a college. She returned to her alma mater Simpson College, and taught choral music. One of the reasons her SFO position is so gratifying, Sheston says, is that teaching is a big part of it; it's very similar to teaching in a college setting.
Sheston's mentor at Simpson had been Robert Larsen, who founded the Des Moines Metro Opera. So, when Sheston ultimately decided to pursue opera following the completion of her academic pursuits, she trained at Des Moines.
"It just became very natural for me to go into working more with singers because I love singing and being around that; and then my path just evolved sort of naturally toward choral conducting," Sheston says. "I'm not really a singer. In fact, I'm not a singer. I'm a pianist. I did study voice quite a bit in college, so I took a lot of lessons, and I think that that's helpful for any conductor-type because it gives you more of an understanding of the people you're working with and how to achieve what you would like for them to be able to do, and also a greater understanding and empathy for those people."
When she's not coaching opera, Sheston enjoys outdoorsy activities such as skiing and cycling, watching hockey and reading. On her own time, she enjoys listening to music from the '80s, Sheryl Crow and Sting.
"I listen to a wide variety of musical styles," she says, "and I think, for most of my musician friends, it's the same. For a lot of us, it would be really unusual to find us listening to classical music when we're not at work. So for me, I'd rather listen to something else because it feels sometimes too much like work."
Santa Fe Opera
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