Written by Anna Bitong
Classical singer Susanna Lucarelli tells timeless stories with the soaring inflections of her voice each time she performs in an opera. And when she steps onstage she is carrying on with what she describes as the family business.
“It’s not all roses at your feet and grand after-parties,” she says. “I’m here really investing my life into music. But there’s nothing else that I would work this hard for. I really feel like it chose me. It’s in my DNA.”
The musical legacy stretches back two generations. Susanna’s mother, Sherryl Nelson, was the founding director of Spivey Music Hall at Clayton State University in Atlanta. Susanna’s grandparents were both performers during the golden era of Hollywood.
Her grandmother, soprano Jean Baker, nee Forward, sang the part of Susan Alexander, acted by Dorothy Comingore, in the 1941 Orson Welles film “Citizen Kane.” In another star turn, she provided the voice of opera singer Nellie Melba in the 1944 movie “It Happened Tomorrow.”
Jean Baker sang with Lena Horne on studio album recordings and can be heard in the choruses of films made by most of the big studios—MGM, 20th Century Fox and Warner Brothers.
She met her husband, David Laughlin, when the two sang the leads in a 1943 production of “Faust.” Laughlin, who was under Columbia Artists Management—“a pretty big deal,” his granddaughter says—starred in the radio show “Tune-up Time.” In the 1930s the tenor also performed lead roles for companies in New York and Opera-Comique in Paris.
His wife’s career slowed after they eloped, and they toured the Philippines and Japan with the USO, starring in a production of “Rosalinda.” At the time, Jean was pregnant with Susanna’s mother.
“She got prematurely stopped in her tracks,” Susanna says. “It’s such a pleasure of mine to be able to provide her with every minute detail about what I’m doing because I know that she so intimately understands the peaks, the valleys and everything in between.”
Now it is Susanna’s turn and, according to her grandmother, it’s just a matter of time.
“She has everything it takes to be a rip-roaring success,” says Jean. “She has a beautiful singing voice and a range that I didn’t have. Her top notes are extraordinary.”
Susanna started her career as a studio singer, writing and performing hooks for pop and hip-hop recording sessions. When she became disenchanted with the youth-obsessed industry, Susanna enrolled at Moorpark College to study journalism while she took care of her grandmother in Camarillo.
The two had always bonded over their shared love of singing. Each says they are inspired by the other.
“I stayed away from studying (classical music) because I loved it so much. I think in the back of my mind I was so afraid to fail at the thing I really treasured the most,” Susanna says.
The soprano, who has sung leading roles in Opera UCLA productions of Offenbach’s “Orpheus in the Underworld” and Monteverdi’s “L’incoronazione di Poppea,” earned her degree in vocal performance with an emphasis in opera from UCLA in June and plans to continue her studies.
“People in our younger generation see opera as an antiquated and dying art form. That couldn’t be further from the truth,” she says. “There are some pieces that I will have to sing maybe five times through before I can sing them without tearing up. That’s magical. That needs to happen. That can’t die with my generation. I won’t let it.
“After singing something, some of us will look at each other and are at a loss for words,” she says of her UCLA classmates. “We’ll laugh; we’ll have tears in our eyes simultaneously. I feel extraordinarily blessed for having this be my family business.
“I was fortunate enough to come from a background that really fostered my love for music and supported me. I’ve completely found my home.”