Mezzo-soprano Susan Graham (photo: Dario Acosta)
by Joseph K. So
To those of us who love opera and are followers of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions - Met Auditions for short - 1988 was a vintage year. All eleven finalists enjoyed respectable careers, with four of them reaching "authentic star" status - sopranos Renee Fleming and Patricia Racette, mezzo Susan Graham, and of course Canada's own Ben Heppner. Now 23 years later, these four artists continue to thrill audiences at important houses around the world. New Mexico-born, Texas-raised mezzo Susan Graham has become a particularly beloved artist, praised for her shimmering high mezzo and dramatic intensity. Toronto opera audiences are eagerly anticipating her Canadian opera debut, in the title role of Iphigenie en Tauride for the Canadian Opera Company. The Robert Carsen production, so far seen at the Chicago Lyric, San Francisco, Covent Garden and Teatro Real in Madrid the last few seasons, received uniform praise for its ability to cut through the trappings of grand opera and tap into the emotional core of Gluck's masterpiece. Last month I had a phone conversation with Susan Graham, who was enjoying some downtime at home in Santa Fe, NM. In between bites of lunch, Graham patiently answered my barrage of questions:
LSM: Your fans are looking forward to your return to Toronto. I think we last heard you in a recital at Roy Thomson Hall 10 years ago, in a program of mostly Ned Rorem songs if I remember correctly. Was that the last time you sang in Toronto?
SG: That was a few years ago! Wait - didn't I sing Les nuits d'ete with the Symphony? I don't remember which came first...
LSM: Have you sung elsewhere in Canada?
SG: Yes, I sing in Montreal quite often - in fact I'll be there August 7 at the Lanaudiere Festival. I've also sung in Quebec City and Edmonton.
LSM: And now we get to hear you in opera! Let's talk at little bit about Iphigenie - it seems to be your most frequently performed role, is that correct?
SG: It's certainly true the past few years, largely because of this wonderful production by Robert Carsen. We've done in in many places. It's a fantastic production that audiences love.
LSM: But you'll have different colleagues in Toronto...
SG: Yes, Russell Braun and Joseph Kaiser. I love those guys, it's going to be fantastic!
LSM: Have you worked with them before?
SG: I've never worked with Joseph but I know him, and I've worked with Russell before - we sang Iphigenie in Paris, in a completely different production.
LSM: What attracts you to Gluck, and in particular to Iphigenie?
SG: Even when I was very young and a student of piano, I've always been drawn to the formalism and the harmonic language of the Classical period. Gluck sort of broke that mode by bridging the gap to the Romantic period. He broke the pattern of recitative, aria followed by applause. Guck's operas are more through-composed, and it keeps the emotional tension running. There's no secco recitativo - everything is orchestrated, giving it a richer texture. I love the poignancy of the melodies. Iphigenie is called upon to do this impossible task, to kill the first stranger who comes on shore. There's great nobility in her music, and yet there's also a lot of sadness and pain.
LSM: Sometimes people ask - are baroque operas relevant to contemporary society... what do you think?
SG: Well, one only have to listen to any opera by Handel to know that it's the essence of the human condition. Part of what I like about it is the formalism in the music, the dignity of it. But at the same time, as a singer, the joy for me is to find the real blood and guts inside this very dignified, formal music. And when you have a really good production that focuses on the emotions like this one, it frees us singers to find those personal expressions in ourselves to illustrate it to the audience.
LSM: You have such a wide-ranging repertoire - baroque, classical romantic, 20th century, contemporary. When you go from one fach to another, how do you deal with the different vocal demands?
SG: I try to keep it simple. I've always maintained that good singing is good singing - one doesn't necessarily changes one's technique. That being said, I recently just did the grandmother of baroque opera, L'incoronazione di Poppea in Florence. I realized that in a small setting with a small orchestra, it's very intimate and one can alter the volume and colour of the voice. It's very different from singing 'Presentation of the Rose' or some big Wagnerian scene where you have to pump out a lot of power - sometimes it's not always about power! Nevertheless, the singing remains the same. For me, equally important as vocal technique is the very clear expression of the music, so whether I am singing the seductive future empress Poppea or Cherubino or Iphigenie, I still want to express clearly through the colours of my voice and the text which each character's emotions are.
LSM: You also sing a lot of contemporary opera. Do you find contemporary opera composers write well for the voice?
SG: Some of them do - sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. That's true of all periods of music. The advantage with (singing the work of) living composers is I can request a change (laughs)! Jake Heggie and I worked carefully together on the role of Sister Helen Prejean in Dead Man Walking. Last year I did a concert piece written for me by a composer who doesn't write so much for singers as he does for instrumentalists. So the particular demands of a certain voice range is new to him. Working with him and talking about tessitura etc., it was a learning experience for him as a composer, and for me as a singer.
LSM: The contemporary operas you sing, like Dead Man Walking, Great Gatsby, American Tragedy - they are all tonal music. Is it fair to say that you've stayed away from atonality?
SG: Yes, that's fair to say... I am more naturally drawn to beautiful music in which I can use my vocal gifts more effectively. I like to spin a melody, I like a beautiful tune, what can I say! And my voice is of a weight and timbre that I've always been able to scale it down to an intimate level - I can sing soft, and I appreciate the ability of doing that within a beautiful phrase of music.
LSM: You've been singing for 25 years. What is the secret to your longevity?
SG: It's actually 22 or 23.... Well, I never sang anything that was too heavy for me. I've been lucky to know what I am good at and what I am not, so I've stayed away from those things. I never tried to overweigh my voice. It sits quite high for mezzos, so there was a time when people tried to get me to beef up the bottom of my voice. My voice teacher and I both knew if I tried to do that, it would cost me some of the shimmer at the top - that's always been very important to me. When I've been faced with making choices, I've made the right ones.
LSM: As a high mezzo, have you ever been tempted to do some of the zwischenfach roles like Elettra in Idomeneo or Vitellia in Tito, that sort of thing?
SG: Certainly! Yes I have thought of Elettra, Vitellia, even the Countess, but it didn't seem right from a vocal colour standpoint. You see it's more than just about range, it's also about the colour of the voice. I've also looked at the Marschallin - I might do that some day....
LSM: I for one would be sad to see you switch to the Marschallin since we are so used to you as Octavian!
SG: (Laughs) It's hard for me to think about doing any other role because I love Octavian so much!
LSM: Since we are on the subject of new roles, are there any roles you are eyeing for the future?
SG: Well, the last new role I learned was Xerxes and I'm doing that again this fall. I've only been doing it for a year. I am doing the Enchanted Island at the Met - it's a pastiche of a whole bunch of music - Handel, Vivaldi. That will be a new role for me.
LSM: If you were to fantasize about singing a role that's completely outside your fach, what would it be?
SG: Tosca! I would love to sing Tosca... I am angry with Puccini because he didn't write any good roles for mezzos (laughs)!
LSM: Have you ever sung Suzuki, in your early days?
SG: (Big laughs) You know how tall I am?! [Note: for the record, Susan Graham stands at a statuesque 5' 10", and she claims she has lost plenty of gigs because she was too tall for her colleagues on stage]
LSM: Any new recordings on the horizon?
SG: Not at the moment...the recording business is funny these days. I just recorded the Ruckert Lieder with the San Francisco Symphony, but I don't have any solo disc coming out.
LSM: With the downturn of the record industry, many singers are now producing their own discs...
LSM: A great album - you're so good in the French repertoire! I remember being bowled over by your Beatrice and La belle Helene in Santa Fe. In fact I went to an autograph session you had at The Candy Man. I took a picture of you with Libby (poodle)...
SG: Oh, did I have Libby with me?! I'd love to have the picture if you still have it...
LSM: Is Libby still with you?
SG: No, she died in 2007...she was 18 years old! She lived a long happy life...
LSM: Is there a Libby's II?
SG: (Big laughs) Unfortunately no, I am sorry to say. Travelling is very difficult these days...maybe some day!
LSM: Well, you've been a delightful interview subject. Thanks for talking, especially during your lunch hour!
SG: I'm sorry I took a bite of lunch in between, if you'll forgive me...
Susan Graham with the late and much loved Libby at The Candy Man, Santa Fe, NM (Photo: Joseph So)
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