Flying back from Boston after spring break, senior Susena Finegan remembered she was going to sing a solo in the orchestra’s performance of “Steal Me Sweet Thief,” an aria by Gian Carlo Menotti. After placing in January’s concerto competition, Susena will sing the song from “The Old Maid and the Thief” along with the orchestra on May 10.
On the plane, she took out her score, put her earbuds in, and played the song. Then, despite the tight quarters of the airplane, she began waving her arm in a conducting pattern.
After a few moments, her neighbor turned to her and said, “Wow, are you a conductor?”
It is a question that Susena scarcely believed anyone would ask her four years ago.
A graduate of Hillsdale High School, Susena participated in different school choirs, as well as the Hillsdale Arts Chorale, and sang solos of contemporary Christian music for her congregation growing up.
But those experiences don’t make a complete musician, especially because until her freshman year, Susena had never had any private voice lessons.
For her vocal audition to earn a scholarship to the college, she knew no appropriate repertoire. She had to learn arias in different languages.
“There was a voice in there that I could hear, but it was tough getting it out,” Professor of Vocal Music Missy Osmond said. “Every once in a while it would come out and she would just about scare herself.”
Osmond and Susena admit there were problems in the beginning: sloppily intoned words, imprecise pitch, rhythmic inaccuracy. But they also agree those problems hardly exist these days.
In one of her last rehearsals before her performance, Osmond, Susena, and senior accompanist Margaret Odell gather in Osmond’s office. Susena drops her music onto a piano and the trio decide to move the lesson to Conrad Recital Hall.
Susena kicks her shoes off, drops her music folder on a stand a few feet away. She never opens it. Odell sits down at the piano and with a nod they launch together into the aria.
All the doors are wide open,
all the drawers are unlocked!
He neither seems pleased or shocked.
He eats and drinks and sleeps,
he talks of baseball and boxing,
but that is all!
She has known the aria for 8 months. The song has been memorized to the point where Susena hardly considers the lyrics. She feels the pulse of Odell’s accompaniment and sings with a mature vibrato with dramatic swells and pure floating tones that convey deep resentment, blind anger, and girlish love.
Steal my lips, before they crumble to dust,
Steal my heart, before death must,
Steal my cheeks, before they’re sunk and decayed,
Steal my breath, before it will fade.
The final note resounds in the hall, then dissipates. Susena is at ease, slouched into a contrapposto.
“Your rhythm was so good. It was so good,” Odell said. “You didn’t second guess yourself, that’s the biggest thing.”
Susena said she worried about conveying true emotions to the audience, but Osmond allayed her fears, urging the young singer to rely on her personal experiences and channel her emotions.
“It is hard for a young singer who hasn’t had these experiences to emote about them,” Osmond said. “They can’t go inside of themselves to find that insecurity, that pain, that whatever that happens when you get your heart trounced on.”
But she believes Susena, now 22 years old, has had experiences that help her perform the song. And the young singer agrees.
“I haven’t really had to pretend because I can connect to it. I have felt the feelings: anger, frustration, arrogance as I come to terms with my age. A senior like me can relate to that.”
Osmond’s eyes lit up as she watched her student perform to an empty concert hall.
“This voice is special, it can do anything. It can be huge, she can float a tone like nobody’s business,” she said.
Susena will perform her senior recital “A Work in Progress” at 5 p.m. on Saturday. She said she chose the title because she feels she has developed her talents profoundly, but like all of us, she’s not there just yet.
Then on May 10, Susena will share her gift, honed and polished over her time at Hillsdale, with a full crowd in Markel Auditorium.
“God gave her a voice,” Osmond said. “She has now been able to do fabulous things with it.”