by JANET MANDELSTAM
Mezzo-soprano Marietta Simpson’s repertoire ranges from Bach and Beethoven to Gershwin and Bernstein.
“When you grow up around music, you have an extensive palate,” says Simpson, a professor of music at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music. “Music was always playing in our house.” The Singing Simpsons—eight biological siblings and three adopted children— regularly sang in Philadelphia churches. “Every weekend we were in our station wagon traveling up and down the area,” she says.
Music may have been an integral part of her young life, but Simpson didn’t envision a career as a performer. “I thought I would be a band instructor, and my undergraduate work was in musical education at Temple University,” she says. “But when I did my student teaching, I decided that wasn’t for me.”
Instead, she earned a master’s degree in music from the State University of New York at Binghamton and began the career that has taken her to the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Washington National Opera, Houston Grand Opera, Opera Philadelphia, and major European orchestras and opera houses. Simpson has sung with every major orchestra in the United States and has performed with many of the world’s top conductors, including Simon Rattle, for whom she sang the role of Maria in Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. She has also performed on several Grammy-nominated recordings.
A phone call in 2005 added a new focus to her life. “A friend called to ask if I’d be interested in teaching on the university level,” Simpson recalls. That friend was soprano Sylvia McNair, who would soon join Simpson on the Jacobs faculty, where Simpson is the Rudy Professor of Music (Voice). Last spring, Simpson was elected as a fellow of the American Academy of the Arts and Sciences.
At 61, Simpson is still performing. She recently spent two months in France appearing as The Old Woman in a production of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide. This summer she will appear with Opera Saratoga in Saratoga Springs, New York.
“I’m grateful that, at this point in my career, there are still mountains to climb, and that I have the energy to do it,” Simpson says.
When she’s not teaching or performing, Simpson is active in her church, enjoys sampling new restaurants in Bloomington, and travels frequently to Philadelphia to visit her daughter and five granddaughters. “And I’ve taken up quilting,” she says. “I’m really bad at it, but I’m just a beginner.”