Suzanne Mallare Acton Steps Down as Rackham Choir Artistic Director

Suzanne Mallare Acton, a genre-defying conductor whose exacting musical standards and knack for experimentation transformed Rackham Choir, is stepping down as the choir’s artistic director after 25 years.

Acton will continue to be music director/conductor for future performances of ‘Too Hot To Handel’ and will remain as a mentor to promising young singers in Rackham’s high school vocal internship program. Joe Jackson, Rackham’s long-time accompanist, is also leaving the choir, and will also continue to work with Rackham interns.

Suzanne Mallare Acton conducting ‘Too Hot To Handel,’ which reimagines a classic choral work through a jazz-gospel lens. Photo courtesy of the Rackham Choir.

Rackham is among the oldest vocal music groups in metro Detroit. Founded in 1949 with high musical ambitions, the choir for a time performed regularly with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. But by the time Acton took over, the group was turning over musical directors and had lost much of its musical firepower.

In 1996 when Rackham lost its director a couple of months before a scheduled performance of Handel’s Messiah, one of Rackham’s board members approached Acton to help them out by conducting the concert. After the performance, the entire board overwhelmingly encouraged her to stay on.

Acton agreed, jumping at the opportunity to experiment with choral music outside of her work as Michigan Opera Theatre’s Assistant Music Director/Chorus Master.  She quickly began pushing the choir’s musical standard upward, reducing the number of annual concerts, imposing stricter auditions for singers, and attracting new members to the ensemble

“I want singers to communicate text, to really reach out to their audience, to do more than just stand there and sing,” Acton said. “Just standing and singing is a little boring. I looked for repertoire that would bring choral music to life.”

With Acton at the reins, Rackham stepped out of its comfort zone with performances such as African Sanctus, a multi-media performance including composer David Fanshawe’s photographs of Africa; a staged version of The Reluctant Dragon, a 1941 Disney film, with full-size puppets; and “Let My People Go! A Spiritual Journey Along the Underground Railroad,” which was staged with actors, dancers, soloists, and drummers.

Acton’s most durable and popular innovation was ‘Too Hot To Handel,’ a gospel-infused remix of the “Messiah” that debuted in New York City in 1993. The “Messiah” is one of the most commonly performed pieces of choral repertoire in the world, and it was a staple on Rackham’s annual calendar. After conducting the classic in 2001, Acton went out to dinner with one of the soloists, tenor Rod Dixon, and mentioned in passing that she’d been hearing rumblings about a new jazz and gospel remix of the Messiah.

Dixon reached under the table, where he had the score in his bag. “I said, I just finished singing it a couple of weeks ago!” he recalled.

Acton began planning to bring the show to Detroit, and Rackham performed it for the first time in March 2002 at the Little Rock Baptist Church. Acton invited David DiChiera, Founder of Michigan Opera Theatre, to attend one of the performances, and he was so impressed by the experience that he agreed to present it at the opera house in December 2002.

‘Too Hot’ was received exuberantly at the Detroit Opera House, especially when people in the crowd realized they could holler and clap along with the music. Over the next 20 years of performances, ‘Too Hot’ has regularly sold out, expanding Rackham’s profile and attracting new members. In 2008, the choir received the Governor’s Award for Arts and Culture under her leadership.

Dixon, who has soloed in dozens of performances of ‘Too Hot,’ said Acton’s broad musical sensibilities are a cornerstone of the show, calling her the “quintessential American conductor who has a universal sense of high standards in music from all corners of the world.”

Members of Rackham Choir with Artistic Director Suzanne Mallare Acton.
Photo courtesy of the Rackham Choir.

By bringing jazz and gospel sounds to the opera house, Dixon said, the show honored Black musical forms that form the bedrock of American music but have been long excluded by American cultural institutions.

“Suzanne could have very easily stayed behind the doors of the Michigan Opera Theatre and stayed on the European side of music,” Dixon said. “She could have done that and been just fine. But as a human being, she included us. As we evolved, she evolved.”

Acton was raised in a household of musicians, and her two older brothers introduced her to jazz. (Both brothers have played saxophone in ‘Too Hot.’)

Acton excelled at the piano, which led her to accompany choral music since her youth. One of her early mentors, John Wustman, accompanied opera stars including Luciano Pavarotti and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf.

Though not a singer herself, Acton emerged from her training an expert in the workings of the voice. Rackham members often remark that rehearsals feel like a top-notch voice lesson.

“If I’m struggling with a piece, she can fix what’s wrong in five minutes,” said Victoria Bigelow, a soprano who has been with the choir for more than two decades. “Her ability to do that in real-time with a group of 80 people is incredible. I just think she makes us better at what we do.”

Dozens of promising young singers have benefited from Acton’s teaching through the Rackham intern program, which gives high-schoolers a spot in the choir and one-on-one instruction on solo repertoire.

Dominik Belavy, a baritone, interned with the choir in 2011 and 2012 before studying at the Juilliard School.

“It was the most in-depth work I’d done on language and on musicality and on style,” Belavy recalled. “I found out when I went to conservatory that my work with Suzanne mirrored professional-level coaching.”

Acton’s mentorship didn’t end when he left for college, he said. A decade later, as he enters the early stages of his professional singing career, she still passes along job opportunities.

“Suzanne has left a lasting legacy with the choir that we’ll continue to build on for a long time,” said Emily Eichenhorn, president and managing board member for the choir. “We wish her well.”

About Rochester Media

Rochester Media publishes The Community Edge digital newsletter of recently posted articles from Rochester Media, a hyper-local news outlet covering all things in and around Rochester, Rochester Hills, and Oakland Township. Send us you press releases and news happenings to

Speak Your Mind