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Different perspectives: The leads of "Susannah" share their views on the leading character

Susannah (1)
Elizabeth Ashantiva (background) and Betsy Uschkrat (foreground) rehearse in tandem. Both women are playing the role of Susannah in IU Opera Theater's latest production. During this rehearsal, Besty sings vocals while Elizabeth lip-syncs.

Set in Appalachia, Carlisle Floyd's Susannah is the most performed American opera. This deeply meaningful and tragic story portrays hypocrisy, intolerance and the consequences of both. IU Opera Theater's new production features two talented singers in the title role -- Elizabeth Ashantavi and Betsy Uschkrat.

Ashantavi, a native of St. Cloud, Minn., is a second-year master's student majoring in voice and studying with Dale Moore. Betsy Uschkrat is in her third year of study for a masters degree in vocal performance and is a student of Costanza Cuccaro.

Live at IU caught up with the two Susannahs during rehearsals and asked about the message the opera has for today's audiences. Susannah is on stage at the Musical Arts Center on Oct. 19, 20, 26 and 27.

LIVE AT IU: Susannah is based on a story from the Book of Daniel in the Bible. Did you read the biblical version in preparation for your role? If so, please comment on how the Bible version helped shape your interpretation of Susannah for this production.

BETSY USCHKRAT: I did read Susannah's story in the Apocrypha and found the storyline to be very different from the opera's plot.

ELIZABETH ASHANTAVI: The stories have the same premise of a beautiful woman who is wrongly accused, but they end quite differently. In the Book of Daniel, Susannah pleads for God's help as she is being led to her death. God hears her cry and stirs up the holy spirit of the young Daniel, who recognizes the injustice of the situation. He proves her innocence, punishes those that have accused her, and she is restored as a member of the community.

BETSY USCHKRAT: If only the opera's Susannah had a savior like Daniel....

LIVE AT IU: Susannah is a beautiful young woman who is "wronged" but survives. Where does she get her strength?

ELIZABETH ASHANTAVI: Even though she breaks down emotionally, Susannah never loses her conviction that she is innocent. She knows who she is in the face of huge opposition. So, I suppose she draws her strength from inside herself, since she can't count on anyone else. She does manage to survive the horrible course of events that take place, but at an irretrievable cost to her innocence and sanity.

BETSY USCHKRAT: Susannah initially gets her strength from being a good person with a naive faith in God and humanity. Being wrongly accused and undefended, she still keeps some faith that things will work out and "things will look pretty again." After she realizes that no one in the town, not even the preacher, will believe her story, she gives up her hope and strength. After she succumbs to the preacher's advances, Susannah's life takes a new direction -- her strength now comes from her fierce anger at the world.

Susannah (2)
Betsy Uschrat and Mark van Arsdale (foreground) rehearse with Elizabeth Ashantiva and Nicholas Nesbitt. Both couples play the leads in the opera "Susannah."

LIVE AT IU: Some critical interpretation has said that strains of McCarthyism and the paranoia of the 1950's run through Susannah. What message do you think the opera has for today's audiences?

ELIZABETH ASHANTAVI: The story of Susannah will move contemporary audiences because it is a classic tale of an innocent person who has been wrongly accused. I think most people can relate to that. In a broader context, the opera is a reminder of the hypocrisy and injustice that can and still do happen in the world. About five years ago, in the wake of 9/11, I knew members of the Muslim community in Idaho who had been taken into custody for questioning as terrorists based solely on their cultural heritage. They were in a state of panic and felt violated by the way they were treated. So, it can still happen today and on a broad scale.

BETSY USCHKRAT: Absolutely. It is devastating to realize, after watching this opera, how cruel humanity can be. In rehearsals, our cast is truly affected by experiencing the darkness that can descend on innocent people. In this case, because Susannah is who she is (young, beautiful, orphaned, lacking a stable support system) she is made the victim of others' insecurities. This story shows how a nice young person is changed into a violently angry recluse due to terrible circumstances.

LIVE AT IU: How have you worked with each other to prepare for the role of Susannah?

ELIZABETH ASHANTAVI: I've enjoyed listening to Betsy in rehearsal to get her "take" on the role. It's interesting to hear how she phrases the music and where she breathes. Just this past week, she's helped me to see some of the details from a new standpoint, which I plan on incorporating into my interpretation. We've also talked about how to pace the role, since it is very demanding -- vocally and emotionally.

BETSY USCHKRAT: In addition to sharing our thoughts on interpretation and pacing with this dramatic work, Elizabeth and I have had several discussions about understanding Susannah and her intentions, We are both so excited to sing this role with orchestra, knowing that it will be like the aria: "one big blanket of velvet all stitched with diamonds."

More information about Susannah can be found at: http://www.music.indiana.edu/publicity/opera/2007-2008season/index.html