• The Exclusive Opera Lively Interview with Susan Graham

    [Opera Lively interview # 105] I've rarely enjoyed so much an interview as the one you are about to read, with the great American mezzo Susan Graham. Sometimes we reproduce the entire conversation without skipping the more conversational bits (like when Ms. Graham tells us that it is raining in Santa Fe) when we want to convey the artist's friendliness, and that's what we did here.

    Ms. Graham's interview will also be part of our upcoming second volume of our paperback interview series due in December 2013, and when we get to that, we'll make it more formal for the print format and will edit out the bits where the interviewer inserts himself, and the conversational parts. But here on the web we chose to keep it all intact, so that the readers will have a taste of how much fun it is to talk with Ms. Graham. I'm sure you are all familiar with her phenomenal voice and exquisite acting ability - but in addition to these great qualities as a performer, Susan Graham is also very intelligent and articulate, genuine and outspoken, which makes her so delightful. Enjoy!

    A large part of this piece focuses on her current work - she is singing the title role in Santa Fe Opera's production of Offenbach's operetta La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein, happening right now in one of America's most competent opera companies, in its unique, beautiful setting with their gorgeous open air theater in the New Mexican mountains. Opera Lively is sending two envoys to watch the show and review it, tomorrow evening August 30. It's been going on for a while - it opened on June 28, had performances on July 3, 6, 12, and 19, and there are four more, on July 30, and August 7, 15, 21, and 24, at 8 PM. Readers will notice Susan's enthusiasm for this production, which will certainly wet the appetite for the few remaining ticketes: get them [here].

    In connection with this run, Opera Lively will also interview in person the talented young American tenor Paul Appleby who is singing the role of Fritz. This will happen on August 1st, so stay tuned for this interview - Susan Graham with all her experience in opera, entirely endorses Mr. Appleby's artistry, as you'll see in one of her answers below.

    As usual before we start, let's learn a bit about her artistic biography and discography.


    Artist - Susan Graham
    Fach - mezzo-soprano
    Born in - Midland, Texas, USA
    Recently in - Carnegie Hall and Boston Symphony Hall, recital with Renée Fleming; Tina, The Aspern Papers (Argento), Dallas Opera
    Currently in - title role, La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein (Offenbach), Santa Fe Opera - see above for days and tickets
    Next in - Prinz Orlowski, Die Fledermaus (Johann Strauss II), Houston Grand Opera, October 25, 27; November 2, 8, 10, 2013 - tickets [here]
    Web site - www.susangraham.com


    Artistic Biography

    Internationally acclaimed Susan Graham - dubbed "America's favorite mezzo" by Gramophone Magazine - rose to the top league of international artists within just a few years of her professional debut, and along the way has mastered an astonishing range of repertoire and formats. Her operatic roles have stretched from Monteverdi's 17th century Poppea to a contemporary American operatic portrait of Sister Helen Prejean in Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking, written specifically for her, as well as leading roles in new works by John Harbison and Tobias Picker, both at the Metropolitan Opera. She won a Grammy for a collection of Ives songs, and her recital repertoire is so broad that 14 composers from Purcell to Sondheim are represented on her most recent disc, Virgins, Vixens, and Viragos (with pianist Malcolm Martineau on Onyx). But throughout her extraordinary career, this distinctly American artist has always been considered one of the great interpreters of French vocal music of her time, so much so that the Texas native was awarded the French government's prestigious "Chevalier dans l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres", not just for her profile as a favorite performer on France's stages but also in honor of her commitment to French music.

    Her tall, slim good looks made the operatic stage the natural first stop of a distinguished career, with early successes in "trouser" roles such as Cherubino in Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro. Her technical brilliance brought mastery of Mozart's more virtuosic roles such as Sesto in La clemenza di Tito, Idamante in Idomeneo, and Cecilio in Lucio Silla, as well as the title roles of Handel's Ariodante and Xerxes. Inevitably she triumphed in the iconic Richard Strauss mezzo roles - Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier (often opposite the Marschallin of Renée Fleming) and the Composer in Ariadne auf Naxos. These roles brought her to prominence in every major opera house in the world, including the Metropolitan Opera, Chicago, San Francisco, Covent Garden, Paris, Munich, La Scala, Salzburg, Vienna, and many others, and she has returned to them regularly.

    An early production of Berlioz's Béatrice et Bénédict in Lyon earned particular raves from the international press for her pristine French diction and innate style, and a triumph as Massenet's Chérubin at Covent Garden sealed her operatic stardom. Invitations to explore more French repertoire came from many of that music's greatest conductors, among them Sir Colin Davis, Charles Dutoit, James Levine, and Seiji Ozawa. New productions of Gluck's Iphigénie en Tauride, Berlioz' La Damnation de Faust, and Massenet's Werther were mounted for her in New York, London, Paris, Chicago, San Francisco and elsewhere. She added the title role of the great Offenbach comedy La belle Hélène in 2005 at Santa Fe and followed with La Grande Duchesse de Gérolstein this summer. Just recently she was hailed internationally in the pinnacle role of Didon in Berlioz's Les Troyens at the Metropolitan Opera, broadcast live on cinema screens worldwide as part of the Met's HD program.

    This affinity for the French repertoire has not been limited to the operatic stage, and indeed it serves as the foundation of an extensive concert and recital career. The great oratorios and symphonic song cycles such as Berlioz's La mort de Cléopâtre and his Les nuits d'été, Ravel's Sheherezade and Chausson's Poème de l'amour et de la mer have been among works taking her to the world's leading orchestras, including regular appearances with the New York Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony, the Orchestre de Paris, and the London Symphony.


    Her distinguished discography includes not only all the above works, but also treasurable solo albums such as the program of mélodies entitled Un frisson Français with pianist Malcolm Martineau (Onyx), an album of 20th century operetta rarities C'est ça la vie, c'est ça l'amour! for Erato, and La Belle Époque, an award- winning collection of songs by Reynaldo Hahn with pianist Roger Vignoles, for Sony, for a total of 30 items.

    On DVD and blu-ray disc, we can see her in Les Troyens, Werther, and La Clemenza di Tito.

    See cover pictures with links to sales points by clicking [here].


    The Exclusive Opera Lively Interview with Susan Graham

    © Opera Lively - Disclaimer: this exclusive interview is copyrighted by Opera Lively with all rights reserved, and is not to be reproduced without express authorization. Brief excerpts can be used after consultation (use the Contact Us form) as long as proper credit and a link to the full interview on Opera Lively are provided. Links to the interview can be posted without authorization.

    Credits - Questions by Luiz Gazzola; Photos from the artist's web site, credit is given when known; we'll be happy to add more credits if we learn about them; fair promotional use.

    Luiz Gazzola, for Opera Lively

    Thank you very much for doing this, Ms. Graham; I’m honored since I’m a big fan of yours.

    Susan Graham

    Sure, thank you! Where are you right now, Luiz?

    OL – I’m in North Carolina, but I’ll be in Santa Fe this Tuesday.

    SG – Oh, it’s beautiful, have you been here before?

    OL – Yes, I have, it’s wonderful, isn’t it? So, let’s start by talking about La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein which you are doing right now at Santa Fe Opera. I love it; it is zany and funny, varied, fast paced, and lively, but also with lyric moments. I do feel that the third act loses steam a little bit. Please tell me about your opinion of this piece.

    SG – I think it’s fun, and there’s some very beautiful music. Nobody does this genre better than Offenbach. He has a way of maintaining a level of humanity within the buffo construct. The music is typical Offenbach, it goes around in circles [laughs] but that’s part of its charm. He very much employs a sort of leitmotif technique as well because the different themes keep coming back and remind the audience of what happened before. We took a comic turn with that. There is for example this “voici le sabre” that keeps coming back – it’s very exciting to the Duchess but all of the soldiers find it very tiresome so that’s kind of a little funny take on it. It’s something the director has worked into the staging, which is cute.

    It’s light-hearted, it’s one of those happy-ending, we are up and up with a bow, and we have some nice Can-Can music to go out on. It’s not terribly emotionally gut-wrenching, I’ll say that. [laughs] But the music is very jolly and the audience loves it. It’s a lot of fun. It’s nice, for a change for me, to be able to do a role where I get to smile a lot. [laughs] Because in things like Iphigénie and Didon, there is so much tragedy, there is not an awful lot of light-hearted moments. In fact, in Iphigénie en Tauride, I don’t even get to smile one time the entire night, I recall, during one of my many performances of that.

    Susan as Iphigénie, photo credit Dan Rest

    OL - I got to know this delightful operetta through the DVD with Felicity Lott in the title role, at the Châtelet with the excellent Marc Minkowski conducting and Laurent Pelly directing – a great team, and a pretty high bar to meet.. So please tell me how this Santa Fe production is coming around. What kind of concept is Lee Blakeley bringing to us?

    SG – Well, Lee Blakeley believes that operetta should be presented with a cultural frame of reference of the location and the audience that it’s done for. So, in our case, since it’s an American audience Lee has chosen to set the action in an American military academy, like West Point maybe, but in the first decade of the 1900’s, so early 20th century. That lends itself to young men in athletic uniforms running around the track, and training for their battles or their games or whatever they are going to do, and the girls come in in there in sort of 1920’s cheerleader outfits, and they’ve got bows in their hairs, and little stripped shirts. The costuming is absolutely gorgeous. Lee has adapted the dialogue to reflect that. The characters, he has made them very familiar American types.

    OL – It is in French, right?

    SG – The singing is in French and the dialogue is in English.

    OL – Oh, OK. How do you feel about that? Does it get disruptive?

    SG – No, I think it’s perfect. Of course we have the titles on the back of the seats here, just like at the Metropolitan Opera. That technology was actually invented here at Santa Fe Opera. So the audience has the translation of what we are singing. We did La Belle Hélène the same way here in 2003. We did the singing in French and the dialogue in English and it worked perfectly. This audience needs to have the dialogue in English, but we didn’t want to sing it in English. I wanted to sing it in French, because of course I love singing in French and so does Paul Appebly, and Emmanuel Villaume, our conductor, is French. We’ve maintained that part of the original composition, to keep the singing in French. It worked just fine. The audience after two seconds, they completely go with it.

    OL – The standard-bearer recording conducted by Plasson with Régine Crespin, had lots of cuts. Minkowski’s version had a lot more music, for instance, including “Le Carrillon de Ma Grand-Mère” at the end of the second act which seems really essential, as it is hallmark Offenbach, accelerating more and more to get to a galop.

    SG – As do we; we’re doing the critical edition by [Jean-Christophe] Keck, which also does include the “Carrillon.”

    OL – Oh, OK, it’s always nice when people employ critical editions, it’s becoming more frequent.

    SG – Yes, we do, we use that critical edition and so we’ve got the “Carrillon,” and we’ve also got the men’s chorus at the beginning of the third act. If you are not familiar with that, it’s very amusing.

    OL – And you’ve got all the ballet, or rather, dance music?

    SG – There are many scenes with dancing. I’m not that familiar with the other versions you are talking about, so I can’t really compare. We do have a dedicated ballet. There is one big dance number at the end of the second act. When you see it, you’ll be able to compare it with the version you are referring to.

    My friend Peggy Hickey, our choreographer, told me that to her knowledge there is no ballet music that was cut. Wait until you see the choreography! What she has done is nothing short of Broadway brilliant. She has turned this into a Broadway show, and it is unbelievable. We have eight professional dancers who are Broadway dancers, and one who is a Radio City Rockette. When we do the can-can, it will be very obvious! [laughs] She’s amazing. We have professional dancers who are doing the flips, they are doing some of the gymnastics, and they are doing lifts, and it’s all extremely athletic. Peggy has taught the chorus men who are our soldiers, very specific military drills, riffle tossing, and twirling of riffles, and we have tap dancing, we have can-can, it’s just amazing! You are going to be thrilled with the choreography!

    Production picture Santa Fe Opera

    OL – Great, I’m getting very excited!

    SG – Yes, yes, it is very exciting!

    OL – Your opening aria, “Ah, que j’aime les militaries” – is it exposed? Does this role include any vocal challenge?

    SG – Well, there are a couple of brazen high B flats, but they are not a problem, really. It’s not a difficult sing, not at all. It’s fun, because there are a couple of opportunities with these B flats for emotional outbursts with virtuosity. They are not just stand-alone vocal moments; they come out of the staging, and the choreography is very cute, very amusing.

    OL – Have you listened to your predecessors in this role? Is this something you typically do?

    SG – Sometimes, yes. Yes, I do, I listen to them for stylistic tips. I watched part of the DVD with Minkowski and Felicity Lott, not all of it, but I watched parts of it before I even got into rehearsals at all, just to get an idea. Our production is completely different from theirs. That production was a little on the dark side and ours is very jolly and has a lot of fun informality. My character is completely different than Lott’s, just because of the production. My character is completely different from Régine Crespin’s. I saw some YouTube videos of Régine Crespin, and she is brilliant, she is one of my great idols. But ours is just a very different take.

    OL – Well, it’s opéra-bouffe, so we won’t expect huge psychological depth, but anyway, your character is engaged in a rivalry with the younger woman Wanda for the love of Fritz. Santa Fe Opera is advertising your take as “Far from being ‘a lady of a certain age,’ this Grand Duchess is a sexy, spoiled aristocrat.” How do you read your character, psychologically, and how do you plan to tackle the role?

    SG – That’s where we are going, yes. Well, I play her as a woman of a certain level of maturity who has a taste for younger men. I’ve been in her shoes before [we both laugh hard]. It comes very easily to me, I might just say [laughs]. It’s just a lot of fun! I mean, the thing is, she is having so much fun with it! She knows that she is in a position of power and she can just walk along and flirt with all of these beautiful young soldiers! She is having a great time with it! The situation with Fritz starts to get a little out of hand. I think that if she didn’t know that she had such competition he wouldn’t be quite so appealing. But it’s the competition with Wanda that accelerates her affection for Fritz.

    Production picture Santa Fe Opera - Susan and Paul

    OL – We’ll be interviewing Paul Appleby as well; I think he is great. What can you tell us about the chemistry with your colleagues?

    SG – Paul Appleby, first of all, I’ve told him that I would be happy if I could just hear him sing French all day long, every day. His voice was made to sing lyrical French music. That’s not to say he doesn’t sing everything else beautifully, he does, but I just love hearing him sing French. He has a beautiful way with the language. He speaks French fluently. The timbre of his voice is just absolutely beautiful with this music. I don’t know if you saw Les Troyens from the Met.

    Paul Appleby, photo credit Dario Acosta

    OL – I did, he sang Hylas.

    SG – Oh, so beautiful!

    OL – Yes, it was beautiful!

    SG – I had been in that show with him, but I never saw him at the theater because Hylas is on stage when Didon is not and vice-versa, so I really didn’t see him except in the dress rehearsals a couple of time, so I didn’t really know him coming into this. He is absolutely charming, completely down to Earth, hilariously funny, but in a very subtle way. His humor is very dry, and he is very creative, and kind of fearless, in a way. I’ve really enjoyed getting to know him.

    OL – What about your comic relief character, the General Boum?

    SG – Kevin Burdette on the other hand is the Jim Carrey of opera! He is completely over-the-top and hilarious, both on stage and off. He will stop at nothing, talk about fearless! That guy is hysterical! He is one of the funniest guys I’ve ever met in opera. And also our Baron Puck, Aaron Pegram is an amazing actor.

    OL – Now, I’d like to address your role in one of my favorite operas – actually my third favorite opera of all time, after the Ring and after Tristan und Isolde: Berlioz’s Les Troyens – I actually did write a little book about it. My preferred version is the Châtelet production with you, and two of our former Opera Lively interviewees, Sir John Eliot Gardiner, and Anna Caterina Antonacci.

    SG – Oh, how lovely. Musically, or scenically, or everything?

    OL – I do love it musically with the period instruments and you all great singers, and the scenery was great with the mirrors. I loved that production, it is simply phenomenal.

    SG – Oh, I loved it too.

    OL – So, I would like to ask you to share with our readers, memories you may have of it.

    SG – Oh! Well, it was a very important milestone in my career, certainly, to do your first Didon, and to do it in Paris, and to do it in that year. Wasn’t it the anniversary of Berlioz’s birth?

    OL – Was it? I don’t remember. [She is right; it was his bicentennial of birth, in 2003]

    SG – Yes, it was! You wrote a book about it!

    OL – I haven’t read my own book in a while! [laughs]

    SG – [Laughs hard]. Anyway, it was the anniversary year of Berlioz, and it was a great honor to do it in Paris at the Châtelet. And what John Eliot Gardiner brought to it was this amazing, as you knew, texturing and clarity of the piece, because often times it is done with a sort of Wagnerian sweep, but John Eliot brought those original Berlioz instruments, these textures, these clarities, these transparencies, that made the storytelling that much more poignant, because you could hear the plaintiveness of certain instruments that sometimes you don’t hear in a big modern orchestra. For starts, that was amazing.

    Now, Yannis Kokkos [stage director] who – we all know – is a brilliant designer, made this gorgeous set, which I thought was kind of abstract but – him being Greek – had real references to that whole part of the world, in the starkness, and the blues and whites. And also, the darkness of the war, and Aeneas and his army who are coming into this land of beauty and light [Carthage]. I thought it was beautiful, the giant mirror reflecting what was going on the stage. The tilted mirror was brilliant. I loved the tenderness of that production. With this orchestration, Greg Kunde and I could sing with our lyric voices, pianissimo and so tenderly in those love duets, and it was so thrilling to be able to really just sort of live it, and not have to scream it.

    OL – Yes, by the way I interviewed Anna Caterina Antonacci as well and she said similar things. What an actress she is, isn’t she?

    SG – She is amazing!

    OL – You repeated the role for the Met – what can you tell us about that production? How do you compare the two?

    SG – Well, by the very nature of the house, the Met production is going to be much bigger, and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra is much fuller, and we got to fill a much larger space. Francesca Zambello as we all know is quite brilliant at managing big epic storytelling with big choruses, and she did a beautiful job of that. The stage was full of people when it needed to be. There was a real sense of a real culture happening, both in Troy and in Carthage. And you got a sense of what life was like for those people. The colors that she uses, the designs, the different physical levels of the stage set, I think kept the eye very involved and interested throughout the piece – it’s a five-hour piece, you got to keep the eye busy [laughs] and I think it’s something she does beautifully.

    The interaction of the principal characters, the relationship I was able to build with Karen Cargill as Anna, I thought was very special, and I loved that. That was one of my favorite things about it. I had two Aeneases, Marcello Giordani and Bryan Hymel, and I have to say, I loved working with both of them.

    OL – Do you feel that with the full Met Orchestra and the 4,000-seat house, it was harder to sing it than in Paris?

    SG – In the end of the day, you’re just doing your performance. I will say that in the fifth act, with Didon’s hysterical breakdown when Aeneas is living, I probably had to have more meat in it at the Met than I did in Paris, simply because in Paris it was played down front over the pit and the orchestra was much smaller. In New York you can’t do that, so by necessity I had to beef it up a little bit, vocally. But I don’t mind doing that, because it all serves the character and it serves the drama and it serves the moment. There were times when I was almost belting it, sort of shouting it in my chest voice those lower notes, which I think fits, because she is at the end of her rope! She doesn’t care about making a beautiful sound all the time [laughs], she is intense! What I mean to say is that in the end of the day you are not really worrying so much about – “Am I going to be heard?” The conductor can help you, hopefully keeping the orchestra down at the times when it is really difficult. The real goal is to serve that moment in the drama, and the character.

    OL – I see. Great answer! La Grande-Duchesse and Didon couldn’t be more different as characters. The latter has an astonishing tragic depth. Would you tell me a bit how you relate to the character Didon and to her music?

    Susan as Didon, Châtelet

    SG – Oh, what a complete character! She is great. I mean, the completeness of beloved woman sovereign, who starts the Carthage portion of the opera celebrating triumph for her people and how their young culture has flourished under her reign, and she is so beloved! It’s so wonderful to come out and just sing that beautiful opening scene and have the adoring faces of my people, as Didon! The chorus members are the Carthaginians, and they are peaceful, loving people, and they adore their queen! It’s so confidence-giving, because you know that you have this big journey ahead of you, as a performer, but to start it that way is very comforting.

    Then, the culture becomes threatened and she has to make some very hard decisions, but Aeneas comes to her rescue, and of course there is that big love story in the fourth act. And that’s one beautiful tune after the other! That fourth act is just a joy to sing, because it’s just beauty, beauty, beauty.

    And then… it all goes wrong in the fifth act, and she turns into a woman scorned, and she basically has a mad scene. And then she gets to kill herself! So, it’s the greatest character, [laughs] because she’s got everything!

    OL – I’ll bring a copy of my little book to offer to you.

    SG – Oh, I would love that!

    OL – You know, not that it is that good, but there are some fun things; I’ve included an interview with Anna Caterina Antonacci and one with Bryan Hymel about their roles in the Covent Garden Les Troyens, so you may like it.

    SG – Oh, wonderful! Goodness, I’m sitting outside in my deck and there is a huge rain storm coming up, I’ll have to get inside, sorry, I’m sure there is a wind blowing over the telephone, it wasn’t making it easy to hear me.

    OL – Yes, there was a little wind noise. So, do you have more fun portraying women like Didon and Sister Helen Prejean, or comic characters like la Grande-Duchesse, Octavian, and Cherubino?

    SG – I do love these characters with a lot of depth. I always say that a character like Didon, a character like Charlotte in Werther, these are the characters that allow you to go into the places of your soul and of your own psyche that you may not be able to access so easily in everyday life – for me, anyway. I’m not a person who is very, very dramatic. I’m not a drama queen in my personal life. My boyfriend my argue with that statement! [laughs] But I’m pretty even keel. So, these rather tragic characters – Iphigénie is another great example – allow me to access the part of every human being, me included, that has pain, has suffering, has loss. I do enjoy that.

    And I have to say, I saw that you’ve included Octavian in the list of comic characters and he does certainly have great comedy, but he also suffers. That was always something that I’ve loved very much about Octavian: he also feels pain, he is hurt by some of the things that have gone on.

    OL – That entire opera is a mix of tragedy and comedy, right?

    SG – Absolutely.

    OL – Are trouser roles a lot of fun? Do they take especial acting abilities for a woman to act like a man on stage?

    SG – Oh, I love them. I’ve done so many of them, and everyone says, “How do you become a boy?” But for me it wasn’t so much becoming a boy, as it was becoming just a kid. It was more about accessing the physical freedom and spontaneity that a young boy would have. I grew up with a brother and a lot of nephews. I’ve been around a lot of athletics and sports in my family. I was kind of a tomboy, growing up. Accessing that athletic movement and male physicality was always very easy for me, because I’m so tall, and I’m certainly no stranger to adolescent cockiness, that was me as a kid too. That part of it has always been lots of fun.

    Susan as Octavian, Opéra National de Paris

    As I look back, one of the most fun and challenging male portrayals that I ever did was a Ruggiero in Alcina in Paris. You can see loads and loads of that in YouTube.

    I looked back at some of those, and I almost forget that I am me, because the way that they costumed me, the very contemporary style of Robert Carsen in directing that production, sometimes I look at those videos and I think “I look just like a guy!” And it surprises even me, because I sort of don’t remember it. There is a lot of not remembering about the development of that character, because it was a long time ago. But when I look at it, I see this suit – it was a sort of neo-cut black suit with a white shirt and a skinny black tie, and I had one of the best boy wigs I’ve even worn in my life. The way that Robert encouraged me to find the contemporary truth in my movement was something that changed it all for me. I tried later to incorporate that into Octavian, even though Octavian is an 18th century teenager. Also, into Sesto – even though Sesto was a Roman, certainly in a much more classical age. Check out that Alcina, because that was one of my favorite male portrayals.

    OL – OK, I will. So, let’s switch to contemporary opera. How was for you the experience of having characters created for you, in Heggie’s opera Dead Man Walking, in John Harbison's The Great Gatsby, and Tobias Picker's An American Tragedy? Is there something interesting to contrast and compare these three experiences?

    SG – Well, it’s great, first of all because you are breathing life into something that has only ever existed on paper before. That can be said of any role that you are doing, but in world premiere, when it’s a new opera, the roles are yours and the composer’s, the director’s, and the conductor’s to construct. There is no precedent. You can discover things, and no one can say that it’s right or wrong in your performance. They can’t say “Oh, that’s not how Régine Crespin did it!” or “It’s not how Tatiana Troyanos did it” because it’s never been done. So, you have the freedom from comparison. You have the freedom to create – and to collaborate – something that nobody has seen before, and maybe something that nobody has thought about, in that way.

    Certainly, with something like The Great Gatsby, it’s an iconic American novel. It was an iconic movie. I went back to the novel, mainly, for my source, because it’s dangerous to recreate something from a movie, although the woman who played my character, Jordan Baker, in the 1974 film with Robert Redford, is Lois Chiles, and I met her recently; in the past year I got to know her a little bit, and we had a good talk about Jordan Baker in terms of playing her, the character. Music adds a whole different level to a characterization. It brings a personality that a book can’t access, because music has a whole other level of expression of a character and of storytelling.

    Susan in The Great Gatsby at the Met

    OL – You did interact a bit with Susan Sarandon, the actress who did Sister Helen Prejean in the Dead Man Walking movie, right? I saw a picture of the two of you together.

    Sister Helen Prejean, Susan Sarandon, Susan Graham, and Julie Andrews
    Backstage at the world premiere of Dead Man Walking

    SG – Oh, it was just a photo op, I never talked to her about it. She wasn’t really interested in talking about it! [laughs hard] I think she owned her own Sister Helen and she didn’t want to share her with me! [laughs]!

    OL – Interesting! [laughs]

    SG – But Sister Helen herself was a huge influence, obviously. Getting to know the actual person… That’s what I was about to say: that the world premiere of Dead Man Walking is in a category of its own, in terms of my experience with world premieres. An American Tragedy was wonderful, but I played a character similar to the one I played in The Great Gatsby. I played a privileged, rich girl in the earlier part of the 20th century, and that was sort of like Jordan Baker. So those two characters were not completely different. Sister Helen, however, is a real person, obviously, and her mission is a very, very… oof!... emotionally loaded calling. What she does is extremely important work, and it shook me to my very core, in just about every level that there is. Playing Sister Helen changed my life. Playing Sondra Finchley did not change my life. [laughs]

    OL – Did you have any input in terms of the living composer there, to adapt the vocal lines?

    SG – Sure, yes, in all three of those. John Harbison who is a very brilliant man, with the part of Jordan, we didn’t have a lot to change. Everything was, to my recollection, pretty fine just the way it was. Tobias Picker, we did work a little bit on Sondra; I think we changed a few phrases that I wanted to sit better in my voice. Now, with Jake, this was Jake Heggie’s first opera! He is brilliant, it’s a brilliant piece, I love that piece, but he was very eager for feedback. There were certain things where the tessitura stayed a little too high for a little too long for a mezzo, so we encouraged him to be a little more tessitura friendly with this part. Also, because it fits the character Sister Helen better. I mean, Sister Helen is not a high-flying hysterical-sounding person, and if write in the upper register for too long, it can start to sound that way. Jake Heggie is one of my best friends.

    OL – Do you have any projects for new world premieres?

    SG – Not any official ones, no.

    OL – So, let’s talk about your latest CD. Your Virgins, Vixens, and Viragos has no fewer than 14 composers from Purcell to Sondheim and explores iconic female characters. Please tell us how you selected this theme, and the songs.

    SG – Well, Malcolm Martineau and I had been talking about it for a long time. We wanted to do a sort of female-centric collection of songs. Malcolm, having a brain like a song encyclopedia, was just throwing these stories out at me, the stories of these characters. For instance, we always wanted to do the Fiançailles pour rire [Poulenc’s song cycle], which is not necessarily about a single person, but it’s about different kinds of love a woman goes through. There is maternal love, there is heartbreak, there is jealousy, there is sassiness, those are just different facets of a woman and her love.

    But if you go back to the first half of that program, we’ve got The Blessed Virgin’s Expostulation [Purcell] – Virgin Mary is the most iconic female that there ever was, so we figured that was a pretty good place to start. [laughs] And it’s perfect, it’s a great piece.

    Then we moved quickly through Mignon [from Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre], who is a great literary character, and certain a female who had her challenges from being an abandoned gipsy child, adopted and possibly abused along the way, and kept in secrecy – she had quite an epic journey, so we wanted to do a collection of Mignon songs of all the different composers, as you know, which was a different take on it rather than doing just a Schubert Mignon, just the Wolf, we mixed them all up [also Schumann, Liszt, Tchaikovsky, and Henri Duparc], which I think it’s an interesting study of the way the different composers treated that character.

    And of course, then there is Lady Macbeth, who lets out the really evil side of these ladies, and she has her little crazy bit at the end. It’s a more restrained telling than Verdi’s, perhaps, by contemporary English composer Joseph Horovitz.

    Anyway, Malcolm knew a lot of these songs, and between his suggestions and the ones that I knew, we just thought it was a good overview. We were calling it Good Girls and Bad Girls, because the whole first half is good girls and the second half is basically bad girls. And we wanted to include something a little more light-hearted at the end and we put in some more comic music theater takes on the woman and her love. We got the Cole Porter piece The Physician, and then there is of course Steven Sondheim’s “The Boy From…” which is a story about unrequited love. She couldn’t understand why the boy from “Tacarembo La Tumbe Del Fuego Santa Malipas Zacatecas La Junta del Sol y Cruz” was not giving her the attention that she wanted, and then she found out that basically he was gay! [laughs hard] So, that’s a classic unrequited love story!

    We just had fun with these explorations of female characters and their take on love.

    OL – Great! So, You are a French knight! You got the Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres title! This is neat!

    SG – Yes, I have also the Legion d’Honneur!

    OL – Opera Lively Press has published a book by your colleague Jay Hunter Morris.

    SG – Oh! [enthusiastically]

    OL – Yes, “Diary of a Redneck Opera Zinger.”

    SG – Can you believe it? Isn’t he funny?

    OL – He is! The book is hilarious! And he explores a lot the fact that he comes from Texas, and ended up singing opera. There is a part about the French car he bought, un Citroën, that is very funny – how a big Texan ends up in a tiny French car.

    SG – Yep!

    OL – And you are also from Texas, and became an expert in French music, an unusual combination!

    SG – [laughs] How did that happen?

    OL – Right! So, that *is* the question: how did that happen?

    SG – [laughs] Well, I always had a very, very active imagination. When I was a young girl, I dreamt of things that were French – French culture, and the French language, because growing up in New Mexico and in Texas, I dreamed about European elegance and culture and élan and food, all the wonderful exotic things that I didn’t have in my surroundings. I was a pianist all along, and I’ve always played a lot of Débussy piano songs, Ravel, and all that kind of thing. Already I loved French music, then when I started studying voice when I was about sixteen, my teacher started giving me Fauré songs, right out of the bat! And Débussy songs, because I could already play them, so I knew the musical language. So, it was just natural that I would gravitate toward that, and when I got into college I was studying Massenet, a lit bit of Berlioz, some Reynaldo Hahn in college, then when I got to the Manhattan School of Music, that blew the door wide open, because I got to do Chérubin of Massenet.

    Susan as Chérubin at the Manhattan School of Music

    In a conservatory setting you can spend six months studying an opera, and studying the words. We had a wonderful French diction coach who had us read the play over and over, like it was a libretto. And so, French started coming very easily to my tongue and to my brain and I was just loving it, it was harkening back to my dreams as a little girl, of going to France some day and seeing the Eiffel Tower up close. So music took me there.

    OL – When you got the Légion d’Honneur, how was it for you?

    SG – Oh, it was amazing. In fact, I got it I believe on opening night of Iphigénie en Tauride, at the Met. The French Consul came to the opening night party and gave me this award. The Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters I got actually at the Ministry of Culture in Paris, and that was very special, because all my French friends came, and the Minister of Culture gave it to me in his offices, in a ceremony. That was really thrilling.

    OL – Your impressive discography has 30 items, and you’ve won so many prestigious accolades in your career, that you must feel very fulfilled. So, what else is challenging, after you’ve accomplished so much? Where do you want to go from that, to remain fresh and interested? You’ve done everything.

    SG – [laughs] Surprisingly, I have not done everything! [laughs] There is still a lot… That’s not to say that I will do everything, because that would be an impossible goal to set. I’m probably looking at maybe ten more years of singing if I’m smart and if I’m healthy, knock on wood. So the clue is just to keep reinventing yourself, and keep doing new things, and try not to recreate, but keep creating.

    OL – Any projects coming up?

    SG – There are some new roles I’m looking at; there are roles that maybe I was offered fifteen years ago and wasn’t ready to look at yet, like Clairon for instance in Capriccio, maybe Countess Geschwitz [Lulu], those kinds of things that are challenging and interesting, but I don’t have to carry the whole show. It’s not Octavian. It’s not to say I just want to do smaller roles, because I’m still doing lots of Les Troyens, and lots of the roles that I’ve been exploring in the past five years or so, but it’s in terms of keeping repertoire fresh and keeping my mind engaged, and keep wanting to learn new things.

    OL – So, after those ten more years of singing, let’s say when you retire from singing, what would you like to do, teach voice?

    SG – No! [emphatically] I don’t want to teach voice! When I work with young students, my passion is to share the passion that has always excited me, which is finding the truth in the musical communication, the expression. I’d like to coach. I like to help a young singer unlock how they feel about a piece and what they want to express within a piece, what it makes them feel, what emotions it brings out and what they’d like to communicate, and to find the best and most effective way to communicate that. That’s always been what really excited me in my own career, in my own portrayals, whether it’s a Ned Rorem art song, or whether it’s a Didon.

    OL – Would you like to stage direct?

    SG – You know, I thought about that. I’m daunted by that, because I think that there is so much to learn, and so much to manage when you are a stage director! Sometimes I marvel at the amazing directors that I’ve had and how their overarching vision seems so clear to them, and how they manage these big groups of people and get them all to do what they want! [laughs] I have great ideas, and maybe in the past five years most directors that I’ve worked with will tell you that I fancy myself as an assistant stage director anyway [laughs hard]! Because I do have very strong ideas about how I want to tell the story, and sometimes about how other people should tell the story too! [laughs]

    OL – Did you have any input in this Grande-Duchesse staging?

    SG – Oh yes! I mean, it was a great collaboration. Lee Blakeley is fabulous. He has great ideas. He knows that I’ve been doing this a while, and that for the most part I know what I’m doing, I know how to tell a story, so with his vision and his concept, we work together to find the best, most effective way to do a scene or to express an idea.

    OL – You are a US ambassador for UNESCO.

    SG – Well, I’m not anymore, that was a three-year thing.

    OL – OK. So, what are causes you care about and plan to be active in, to make an impact?

    SG – Right now I’m working with an organization to rebuild a music school in Haiti. They had an amazing music program going in Port-au-Prince, then it was wiped out when Haiti underwent the terrible disasters that they did. The children and the people who are running the program are so dedicated to reviving it, that they’ve been laboring under terrible, terrible circumstances, like trying to train children to play a violin in a tent. So we are working hard at it, because they have an enormous desire to rebuild their music training program. Their kids have great talent.

    OL – Admirable. And what did you do when you were with UNESCO?

    SG – I travelled to different meetings and historical sites, and worked on preserving certain folk art, and folk music initiatives for different cultures around the world, mostly in South America.

    OL – Nice. Now, let’s end by getting to know the woman underneath the artist, if you don’t mind. Would you tell us about your extra-musical interests?

    SG – Well, I have just taken up a new hobby, just this summer – jewelry making. I became fascinated. Here in Santa Fe there is a lot of crafty people, and by crafty I mean people who do crafts. [laughs]. I’ve always had an eye for wanting to create things with textiles. I’ve never been much of a seamstress, though. Out of a desire to create something for myself, I just tried it one day, I was going to make some bracelets, it was just so much fun, and offered me a creative outlet to make something beautiful, and now I’m making them for my friends, for my family, and myself, and my mother… So, it’s a lot of fun, and I’m doing a lot of experimenting with different kinds of beads and techniques.

    OL – What else do you like? Gourmet food?

    SG – Oh yes, I love to eat gourmet food, and I have a lot of friends who are winemakers, so I’ve been learning a lot about wine over the years. Good wine is something that I’m very interested in – drinking and learning about it! [laughs]

    OL – That’s my second biggest interest, after opera!

    SG – Really?

    OL – Yep. So, do you cook?

    SG – No. My boyfriend is a great cook. I think I chose very wisely [laughs], finding someone who is a great cook. Also, another thing that I’ve been learning about recently is children, because my boyfriend has seven-year-old twins. I wouldn’t call step-parenting a hobby, but it is certainly something that has taken an awful lot of my brain, these days. I find if fascinating. I never had children of my own, so being around these children and being a step-mother figure to them has been such an eye-opener, and really has brought such joy to my life. It’s fascinating, because I became interested in things that I thought would never apply to me, like techniques for educating young children, and how certain things are better than other things, just getting really involved in it, in a way that I never thought I would have a need to.

    OL – How are you as a person? What’s your personality like, and your take on life in general?

    SG – I don’t know, what do you think? [laughs hard]

    OL – [laughs] Really lively and friendly, I would say!

    SG – [laughs] That’s pretty much it! That pretty much sums it up. I’m not very equipped to answer that, you may ask some of my colleagues. I’m a person for whom, I guess, friendships and connections are very important. I have friends in this business with whom I’ve been for twenty-five years, people I grew up in the business with; we started up together: Renée Fleming, Barbara Bonney, Tom Hampson, I consider them my family.

    OL – [Having misunderstood her] Barbara Hannigan?

    SG – Barbara Bonney.

    OL – Ah, OK. I think I have Barbara Hannigan in my mind, because I’ve just seen this spectacular new opera with her, Written on Skin by George Benjamin, and I can’t stop thinking about it. Have you seen it?

    SG – Oh, no, I didn’t.

    OL – It’s spectacular, I think it’s one of three best contemporary operas I’ve ever seen.

    SG – Wow! I’m sure you are going to see Oscar when you are here.

    OL – I will, of course!

    SG – David Daniels is another one of those people who I consider my family.

    OL – I’ve been trying to interview him too, but it looks like he is very busy with this world premiere.

    SG – You should, because this Oscar is a very important piece.

    OL – Yes, I hope he finds a moment to talk to us. Contemporary opera is one of the main focuses of Opera Lively. Oh, I did forget to ask you one question I was curious about: how did your love for opera came to be? You started as a pianist, then you were singing art songs… I assume you didn’t plan in advance to be an opera singer.

    SG – I was in music theater in High School. I played Maria in The Sound of Music. That was a big eye-opener for me, because I had never done anything theatrical before. I was always a bit of a ham… [laughs] I was a kid who as jumping around on the tables at family reunions, trying to get everyone’s attention, because I was the youngest of my family, and the youngest of our whole complete extended family. And the youngest, they are always vying for attention. Once I was in that musical, I loved the opportunity to be on stage and to become someone else, and the challenge of creating another persona and saying someone else’s words, and just becoming another character – I loved that! Now, everyone thought – because where I come from no one knows much about opera – that I was going into music theater. “Oh, you will big a big star on Broadway,” they said, when I was eighteen.

    I was in college at Texas Tech, and I had been a competitive classical pianist for ten years, and for me classical music was really where I was at, and I thought, “Well, classical music and theater, that combination spells opera.” So, it seemed so incredibly difficult and impossible to imagine, to learn all those languages, and all the music history, and sing operas written by Mozart after I played all the Mozart sonatas and concertos, and to sing these things would just be the most incredible experience imaginable, so that’s what I wanted to do!

    OL – What was the first opera you saw?

    SG – The first opera I ever saw was Così fan tutte, live. Texas Opera Theater was touring through my hometown of Midland, Texas, and they played in my High School’s auditorium. I watched Despina with fascination, because she was funny, she sang Mozart, and she got to drink chocolate. And I thought, those are three things that I like very much. [laughs] Comedy, Mozart, and chocolate! So I thought, “I want to sing the character Despina one day.” But I didn’t, of course I sang Dorabella.

    Then when I went to Texas Tech, the first opera I was ever in was Faust. And I did not sing Siébel, because I was just a kid, tiny kid, I was in the chorus. I think I was the chorus woman who discovers Valentin stabbed and dying. Then when I went through schools, we did scenes. We didn’t mount the whole Rosenkavalier, but I did Octavian scenes, Falstaff scenes, and I did Così. Hänsel und Gretel, we did the whole opera. Fledermaus, we did the whole opera. We did a lot of Gilbert and Sullivan, so I sang a lot of those parts. So it certainly got under my skin. I had a great teacher at Texas Tech, and when I finished graduate school with her I moved to New York and went to the Manhattan School of Music, and got a lot of exposure to a lot of different things, and here I am!

    OL – Yes, world-famous! One of the best in the business!

    SG – [laughs] How in the world did that happen? I don’t know, but I feel very, very lucky.

    OL – That’s all I had, and wow, we got one hour, that’s great!

    SG – Well, you are lucky that it’s a Sunday afternoon, and I’m just watching it rain! [laughs]

    OL – I loved it, it’s one of our best interviews to date, I think.

    SG – Oh, how sweet! Thank you, Luiz, thank you so much!


    Let's listen to the singer, as Didon, with Greg Kunde, in their iconic Châtelet recording, singing the gorgeous duet Nuit d'Ivresse from Les Troyens :

    Here, I'm including this amateur video in spite of its very poor sound quality, because it gives an idea of how much fun it is to watch a Susan Graham recital, and it exemplifies her profound friendship with the great Renée Fleming, with both doing the Guarda Sorella duet from Così fan tutte:


    If you came to this page through a link from another site, please consider exploring our other exclusive interviews (Joyce DiDonato's, Anna Caterina Antonacci's, Luca Pisaroni's, Thomas Hampson's, Piotr Beczala's, scholar Dr. Philip Gossett's, veteran singer Sylvia Sass', tenor Jay Hunter Morris', composer George Benjamin's, and stage director Thaddeus Strassberger's are especially good, among 101 artists, scholars, conductors, directors, etc.), news, and articles by clicking on the Articles tab above and using our new clickable content index [here], or the Section Widget on the top left of the page; our very active discussion Forum (of course, by clicking on the Forum tab - and please notice that over there we also have an area with content in Spanish, German, French, Italian, and Portuguese).

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    Bookmark our site and come back for more - several new and exciting interviews are always coming to Opera Lively - recent ones have included composer Kevin Puts, tenor Giuseppe Filianoti, mezzo Magdalena Kozená, tenor Lawrence Brownlee, international stars Diana Damrau and Eva-Maria Westbroek, veteran mezzo Frederica von Stade, emerging soprano Lisette Oropesa, and brilliant contemporary composer George Benjamin. Upcoming (under transcription) brilliant stage director Laurent Pelly, and next, tenor Paul Appleby, stage director Francesca Zambello, and Greek National Opera artistic director and principal conductor
    Myron Michailidis, among others.

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