An interview with Rebecca Schuessler
2009-10 Resident
Opera San Jose
I have always believed that opera is a planet
where the muses work together,
join hands and celebrate all the arts.
Franco Zeffirelli

Rebecca Schuessler is a member of the resident company of Irene Dalis’s OPERA SAN JOSE. Dalis founded her fledgling opera company in 1984 and by 1988, it was so well received that OPERA SAN JOSE was able to form a resident company of principal artists, for which it provides rent-free accommodation. These artists are typically promising singers in the early years of their career. They are given annual contracts & coaching and are expected to fill leading roles in the company's performances. This program is modeled after similar programs in German regional opera companies.
It is an immense honor to be selected to be part of this very fine company. “OPERA SAN JOSE is a unique company in the U.S. It is the equivalent of a "Fest" contract in Germany,” explains Schuessler. “That means there is a group of singers, the Principal Artists in Residence, by which the season is cast. These singers have the opportunity to sing up to 4 leading roles in a season, and they come into the company with the intention of staying. It was originally conceived as a 4 year training program for young singers. Being a singer with OSJ gives its residents the time & opportunity to learn a great deal about themselves as singers, and about the business of performing opera on major stages. OSJ brings in directors and guest conductors from all over to world for us to work with and learn from. There is also a fantastic coaching staff, and roster of coaches with whom the singers may work. OSJ is incredibly committed to the development of their singers as well as the quality of their productions. Ms. Dalis is a constant presence in the company, and a primary source of energy. Her dedication and devotion to us and the company are astounding. She is a wealth of inspiration and knowledge. Her career was the kind of career to which anyone would aspire, and she has great advice and insight to give. I couldn't have picked a better place to be.”
She also couldn’t have given herself a greater professional challenge. In this upcoming season she is appearing in the title role of Manon, Clorinda (La Cenerentola), the Countess (The Marriage of Figaro), and Magda (La Rondine.)
She made her company debut during the 2008 - 2009 season, appearing as Fiordiligi in Così fan tutte.
Rebecca Schuessler is considered an up and coming performer but she is certainly not new to the opera stage. She has sung in various styles ranging from the Baroque to contemporary, and is equally at home on the recital stage as on the operatic stage. She has sung roles at Opera Idaho, West Bay Opera, the Civic Opera of Kansas City, the Conservatory of Music at UMKC, and Florida State University. She has also sung in Italy with the Barga Institute at the Teatro Differente in Barga, Italy. Roles performed include Fiordiligi (Così fan tutte), Mimì (La Boheme), Madame Warblewell (The Impresario), Ann Putnam (The Crucible), Noemie (Cendrillon), Cornelia (Giulio Cesare), Sorceress (Dido & Aeneas), Mary (The Wise Women) and Bianca (La Rondine).
She has proven her abilities to excel before her peers. She was a district winner in the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, Second Place winner in the Young Artist division of the Orpheus Competition, and a finalist in the Concerto/Aria Competition at the Conservatory of Music in Kansas City, Mo.
One cannot help but wonder why any young singer in today’s instant gratification milieu would decide to undertake as demanding and difficult career as Grand Opera. There are so many other singing genres more accessible to audiences and more in sync with our modern world. Schuessler explains: “On Sunday October 4, we did a musical theater review as a fundraiser for OSJ. I hadn't performed music theater before, and I had a fantastic time doing it! It was a lot of fun, and presented completely different challenges than opera, such as singing & dancing at the same time. It was a different style of singing, and a different vocal aesthetic. That was when I realized that I love opera, over other vocal forms, partly because of its challenge. It is the hardest thing I've ever done, and because of that it constantly keeps my attention. There is always something to work on or learn, whether it is a language or a technical issue.”
Hearing Schuessler sing is like discovering a magic garden of sound. She was the lead in Manon, last September and I had the pleasure of experiencing her unique combination of vocal excellence and exceptional acting skills. There are three acts in this opera and in each, Manon is a different person: a young innocent, a seductive vamp and a repentant, wise human being. Schuessler convinced us that she was each one of these characters and yet the same human being. We all grow and change in our lives and Massenet’s lovely opera is a perfect vehicle to illustrate how a human being develops and yet must pay the consequences of her actions even when she has grown to understand how ill-advised they were. Manon is one of the most popular operas performed in America. Beverly Sills referred to the lead role as the French Isolde because of its sustained vocal and dramatic demands. Schuessler was not only up to the challenge of this difficult and exquisite role, she excelled.
To me, she outshone everyone in the cast and perhaps that is because her love of the music and her love of her character shone through her performance. “What I love is performing. As nerve-wracking as it is, once I'm doing it, I don't feel the butterflies or the shaky knees anymore,” she said. “I get focused, and stop thinking about extraneous things. I love getting into a character, discovering what makes her tick, or how the music informs her. As an opera singer, it's not just about the singing, although that is the most obvious element of the art. For me, acting and singing are equally important. Right now I want nothing but to perfect my operatic skills.
“Oh, there may be a time in my life where marriage and a family has more appeal, but for now (and the past 8 years) opera singing has been my passion & driver. It may be the perfectionist in me that keeps me here- I won't stop until I feel like I've reached my goal.”
And if she is to reach her goal, she must perform . So far the only heroines she has portrayed are Fiordiligi in Cosi Fan Tutte and Manon in Manon. Each role has its own special problems but it all boils down to knowing who your character really is. “Humans are complex beings, and we all have different experiences that shape and mold us,” she says. “A large part of what I enjoy is getting into these characters and understanding where they are coming from and what motivates them. People are incredibly different and incredibly similar- so even though I have never been a fallen woman as Manon is in Act 5, I can still relate to her emotions- shame, repentance & humility. It is also a great challenge to find what works, vocally & dramatically. It is usually a very delicate balance.”
If you are going to perform in an opera, you need to believe in what you are doing and the characters you portray. This isn’t easy when the feminine roles in most librettos are stereotyped “little women,” toys that the men play with and never take seriously. Schuessler speaks to this time warp: “People are people- whether they existed 300 years ago or now,” she says. “Our emotions have probably not evolved with our civilization- We are still hurting each other & paying the price for it. Many operas are being updated, and with great success because there are more similarities (of people/experience) than dissimilarities in great works. When they were first written, opera was a regular part of most people’s lives. It was entertainment, but it was also the vehicle for social commentary. Art/performances touch people differently. I could tell you what a piece has to say to me, but I'm quite sure that someone else will have a very different idea.”
Rebecca Schuessler works many hours perfecting her art. She is building a career that will take years to ascend to the pinnacle she hopes to achieve. She discusses where she sees herself in ten years: “Ten years is a long time off... Two years ago I would never have thought that I would be living in California & singing with a company like OSJ,” she says. “That being said, I would love to be singing internationally at all of the best houses. I'm not necessarily looking for fame, but I would like to be at the top of my game, and at a level where I work with the best of the best. I want to continually progress: if I can look back in 10 years and feel like I've continued to grow, then I will be happy.”
She is dedicated to her craft and to her medium. What looks like rigorous, thankless drudgery to those of us on the outside, is pleasure and fulfillment for her. “The challenge doesn't exist just for my success, but also for the success of opera itself,” she says. “I feel my future is entwined with that of opera; its success will be mine. There are lots of people working very hard to perpetuate this art and to help people understand its relevance. Opera was not an American art form, and that has caused it to seem irrelevant to people. American composers have done a great deal in this genre in the past 50, and I believe have made great strides in creating a relevant American opera.”
You can see and hear Schuessler as the mother in La Cenerentola, by Rossini November 14-29, in the magnificent California Theater in San Jose. “Despite the fact that Rossini’s La Cenerentola has much to admire from a grownup’s perspective, it is still the wonderful fairytale we learned to love as children,” says the OSJ General Director, Irene Dalis. “Though Rossini purged the story of its supernatural trickery and made every character depend on native skills and abilities to get through all the tests and trials, he still conjured up a great deal of magic through his unique musical genius.”
The opera is a delight and you can be assured that Schuessler’s performance will be a gem. Opera San Jose offers people interested in vocal excellence a rare opportunity to see and hear young stars on the way up. Years from now, viewers that have been treated to an OSJ productions will go to another opera house in another city and point to the diva on stage and say, ”I knew her when….”
Tickets and information: www.operasj.org
408 437 4450