Susan Graham Interview

 One of the world’s most sought-after mezzo-sopranos for more than two decades, Susan Graham continues to explore new possibilities, to return to some roles (Didon in Les Troyens, Handel’s Xerxes), and to acquire new ones — including some surprising turns in operetta and musical comedy, exploiting her stage presence and her keen wit. Acclaimed especially for her forays into contemporary American music and French chansons, she remains a busy recitalist and concert artist. To this avid admirer, she sings with all the skill, warmth, and fragrant sensuality she’s always displayed. But at age 53, she knows that changes lie ahead. In addition to concert appearances in coming months, Susan Graham returns to the Metropolitan Opera in February and March, making her role debut as Sycorax, the sorceress, in a revival of the Baroque pastiche The Enchanted Island, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. (The role was created by Joyce DiDonato at the Met in 2011.) In June, she returns to Paris — where this New Mexico native was named a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur — and on the very stage where she first essayed Didon in 2003, she’ll star opposite Lambert Wilson in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The King and I, another first for her.
I first met Susan in 2002, and since then have followed her beyond the Met to hear her in Paris, Brussels, San Francisco, and Houston; this season I have reviewed her performances in Argento’s The Aspern Papers in Dallas and Offenbach’s La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein in Santa Fe for this magazine. This month, during a relatively quiet moment in a spectacularly busy season, she welcomed me to her home in New York City, where we talked about some of her recent engagements and her future prospects, as well as the ways in which her childhood in New Mexico and Texas prepared her for a remarkably rich career. Susan Graham website
While you always incorporate comic songs in your recitals, your stage roles have mostly been more serious — until recently. You sang Offenbach’s Grand Duchess in Santa Fe this summer, and Orlofsky in Houston this fall; Sycorax in The Enchanted Island, which you’re singing at the Met this season, also has strong comic elements. How do you approach comedy?
It’s what I do every day of my life. It’s just like living.
How so?
In my real life, I love to look at the funny side of things, and I’m very easily amused. I’ll find the comedic take on something, just about the first thing. Then when you have a script, it’s easy to find the double entendre and sarcasm, especially the sarcasm. A character like the Grand Duchess, that was very easy, because she was haughty and a woman of a certain age, and rather hedonistic. And I wouldn’t say — I’m not haughty! [Laughs.] So I found her a little bit relatable.
You never force the joke. How conscious is that?
It’s a self-conscious thing. Because I have a fear of being perceived as — and this is just a big, broad general life thing — as a person who’s “Well, she’s trying too hard. Over-selling it.” I guess it’s a weird take on a kind of modesty. But any kind of over-forced humor makes me cringe, and the last thing I want to ever do is make anyone cringe. So I will probably risk that they don’t get the joke before I will consciously over-egg it. That’s not to say that I’m always subtle. Because I’m not.
But comedy shouldn’t be overdone, pushed, or forced. I think that for me, the fun is letting the audience in on the joke. To let them feel like they just figured it out, rather than I’m shoving a pie in their face. That was the fun of those jokes that we added in Grand Duchess, like “the fish called Wanda,” which your Italian audience may not get. I wanted to say, “Oh, a fish called Wanda.” But the director very wisely [made a different suggestion], because he’s of the same mind and didn’t want to push the joke too hard. The character’s name is Wanda Fish, and my sarcastic character couldn’t resist making a joke out of it. I just said “A Fish …” and then let the audience get it. That’s how I like to do in the comedy in my recitals, too. That’s more one on one, because I’m very close to the audience. But I like to present the situations and draw them in to find funny what I find funny.
Offenbach is funny, French, and sexy — three things you excel at.
Those are three elements that led me to agree to do the piece. But still, the singer in me and the musician in me wanted more meaty things to sing. And that’s where Sycorax comes in. That’s real singing. And certainly Orlofsky doesn’t have any of that, and Grand Duchess doesn’t have much of that and Belle Hélène doesn’t, but Merry Widow does. And I always feel shortchanged when I don’t have much to sing — something good to sing. [Note: Susan Graham sang Hélène with Santa Fe Opera in 2003; she has sung Hanna Glawari in Houston, New York, and Los Angeles.]
It occurs to me I’m Vivian Vance. Sometimes! [Laughs.] I guess maybe Eve Arden is a better comparison, because Eve Arden was sometimes the more glamorous leading lady, but many times she was the best friend. I watched this interview with Vivian Vance and Lucille Ball, and they hadn’t seen each other in a long time. It was on The Dinah Shore Show in the late ’70s. It was like watching me and Renée [Fleming] fifteen years from now. They were obviously so fond of each other and embraced warmly and then just laughed about stuff that they had done. Vivian was me, she was the matter-of-fact one saying, “Remember that time,” and I was just mentally inserting Susie and Renée stories: “Remember that time when your dress got caught on the chair and if I hadn’t loosened it you would have dragged the chair stage left while you were singing?” That’s the way Vivian Vance was with Lucy. The mezzo is always the one putting out fires — as the boyfriend, the sister, or the best friend.
And yet in your career you have played a lot of leading roles.
There came a point, probably when I was just turning 40, that we started seeking out what we were calling the “big girl” [as in grown woman] parts. I started seeking out title roles, and fortunately my management agreed, and fortunately so did opera managements. [Laughs.] If not title roles, then leading lady roles. And there’s a lot of stuff in the French repertoire that would very much support that.
How hard did you have to look?
Not that hard. Because really, if you look in the right place, the leading mezzo part, if it’s not the title role, it’s the protagonist. If it’s French. There’s Charlotte, there of course is Didon, Béatrice, Marguérite in Damnation, Iphigénie — and Alceste, should I choose to go down that road. Now, then you go into Handel. Xerxes, Ariodante, and although Alcina is the title character’s name, Ruggiero is the leading man. Even in Clemenza, Sesto — it may be the Clemenza of Tito, but it’s the journey of Sesto. “Il Viaggio di Sesto.” So that’s another one.
And this has been rewarding?
It doesn’t suck.
Can I say that in Italian?
It’s up to you. They’d probably figure it out if you say it in English! But yeah, it’s great. It not only offers great stimulation as an artist, and challenges, but it adds to — it creates an enormous elevation of confidence and how you value your place in the artistic world. You know, there’s a whole repertoire of secondary mezzo roles. And a lot of my mezzo colleagues stay there happily, and they perceive themselves as not-the-leading-lady. I was given an opportunity to learn what the sopranos feel like, and to be one of the mezzos who gets to feel glamorous, and gets the opening night, and gets the last bow. And it gives me confidence as an artist. It lets me walk out on the recital stage at Carnegie Hall and feel like a diva, in the best way, because I’ve earned it. For me that’s important, because I can still slip into [feeling like] little Susie from Texas, who thinks they’ll figure out that it’s all fake.
Beverly Sills used to say that she was just reaching her peak when the curtain came down, and that after a good performance she wanted to start again from the top. More-substantial roles certainly give you opportunities — like Didon in Les Troyens, where you let forth this incredible outpouring of artistic energy, “turning it up to 11,” as we say.
Well that’s just Berlioz! There’s no choice, that’s how Berlioz wrote it. Thank God Berlioz wrote that at the end and not at the beginning, because there’d be no way to continue! Whatever you’ve got left at the end of Act V, you spend it. That’s how I viewed it. Because the woman is literally at the end of her rope.
So you store up your energy in the dance breaks?
[Laughs.] That’s in Act IV, and I just lie there and say, “Okay, the next act’s not going to be so easy!” Actually, I never think about that. I have observed myself before, during, and after, and realizing that, for better and for worse, I’m always exactly in the moment, and I’m never thinking about what’s coming up. Maybe I should.
You performed symphonic pieces in concert with some great orchestras this season: Schönberg’s Lied der Waldtaube and Mahler’s Lieder eines Fahrenden Gesellen with the Ensemble Contemporain in Europe in January, and Ravel’s Shéhérazade with the Boston Symphony in America a few weeks later. What are the challenges of those appearances?
Well, the thing coming up in January is tricky, because the Mahler will be great fun. I’ve sung it before, and Mahler and I are old friends. The Schönberg on the other hand is new, and it’s really hard! It’s just hard! It’s hard music to learn. There are a few phrases that are tricky to sing, but I’m sort of slowly falling in love with it, which is good. The challenge of something like Ravel in “Shéhérazade” is just giving over to the atmosphere and hoping that I can create the kind of world, tonally and colorfully and expressively, that the piece needs, and I can jut inhabit that. It needs to be technically well sung but textual color needs to complement the orchestral color— which Ravel and Haitink and the BSO will take care of, but I have to do my part, too.
When I’ve heard you singing in concert with a symphony orchestra, you’re generally not playing a character. You become almost an abstract, an instrument in the ensemble.
It’s funny that you say that about becoming part of the ensemble, because one of the things I do, the first day of rehearsal and up until final run-through, I sit facing the orchestra. I’m one of them. If I have something that the clarinet has to echo or do in unison, I’m always fixed on them and we take care of it together. Sometimes I just bypass the conductor, and the instrumentalist and I will work it out on a break. I have been known, when working with les experienced orchestras, to go into the orchestra and stand next to the instrumentalist, so we can work it out and they’ll know what I’m doing.
Perhaps the really big news is that in June you’re going to play Anna in The King and I at the Châtelet — which represents a return to the Broadway musicals of Rodgers & Hammerstein.
How about that!
I know that you played Maria in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music when you were in high school. But this is a repertoire you haven’t tried on for quite a few years.
No! But I’ve always approached something like Dorabella as if it were musical comedy. Or Hanna Glawari. Or Grand Duchess or Belle Hélène. You know, the technique of the spoken word is a craft that I will have to learn. I have a certain amount of natural ability in that area, but certainly it’s an art in itself, and I have people to work on with that, I have some Broadway people who are going to work on it with me, through my friend Peggy Hickey, who is choreographing A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder, her Broadway debut [a musical comedy that recently opened in New York]. It’s hilarious, the funniest thing ever.  There’s a lot for me to work on. In The King and I, even the songs — that one song, “Yes, your Majesty! No, your Majesty! Tell us how low to go, your Majesty!” is almost spoken word. And then we’re trying to decide what kind of accent she should have. She’s Welsh, but in our ear we hear it as Hoch English, and I’ll negotiating it all with a ten-foot-wide hoop skirt and a corset so tight I can’t breathe.
Have you tried on the costume?
Oh, no, but I’ve seen pictures. Yeah, it’s a lot. It is a lot. And if I count up from this time last year — let’s see. The learning curve, from Les Troyens, which I had done — but still! Then there was the Renée tour; The Aspern Papers, difficult contemporary American music. Then Grande-Duchesse, lots of French, lots and lots of words and dialogue – in two different languages! Fledermaus wasn’t that much, but still I had to learn it. Enchanted Island, which is a lot, and King and I. And that’s all in 18 months time. If you don’t count the Renée tour, is that really six roles?
But that’s probably why I feel an affinity for [musical comedy]. I did a decent amount of musical comedy in high school and college, and a lot of Gilbert & Sullivan.
I know that you did The Sound of Music, but what else?
Carousel, My Fair Lady. I didn’t do lead parts in all of them, but I was in them. In 1776, I was Abigail Adams. And then Pirates of Penzance and H.M.S. Pinafore, and what else? I did a handful of them.
For American audiences, Broadway musicals are a good way to prepare to listen to opera. The songs are in English, and so by listening to them, we’re conditioned to understand that the songs are meant to communicate feelings, characters, and stories. In opera, there’s more singing and the language may be Italian or German, but the fundamental purpose is the same.
There are two things that contribute to my ability to be understood by the audience. One is that, which you just said. And the other is that I perform onstage and I communicate as if I were communicating to people who are unschooled in opera. Because where I came from, very few people were [familiar with opera], so I figure if I can make my mother get it, if I can make people in my family who are not experienced in opera, if I can make them understand me, then I can make anybody understand me.
That includes me, too. Because I want to strip everything else away, I want to strip expectation away, I want to strip tradition away, and I want to get down to the essence of what a word means or what a gesture means or what a phrase means, or what a movement means — and by “movement,” I mean musical movement. Because I came into this without a big opera background, and I think this is something that everyone always says, “How does a great opera star come out of New Mexico or Texas or Kansas or Wyoming, when they didn’t grow up with it?” And I think it’s actually an advantage, because we come into it pure and naïve, and we have the ability to take the words and notes off the page and have them make sense, without having to go through a lifetime of hearing 16 artists perform it at the Metropolitan Opera over a lifetime. It sounds counterintuitive and probably sacrilegious, and I don’t advocate staying way from the Met, but if that’s how you grew up, you can use it to your advantage. I have to be so P.C. [politically correct]. People are going to say, “Don’t listen to her recordings.” But that’s how I grew up, and you have to use it. I don’t know if Joyce [DiDonato] would say the same thing, but she has made so much music her own, without doing it the way that anybody else did. That’s what I’ve tried to do, too. And I certainly have colleagues that, before they sing a note of a role, they will listen to every single recording available and glean what this one did and that one did — and to me, that’s a scrapbook, not a performance. It’s a quilt. It’s not authentic to who that artist is; you’re just taking bits and pieces of other people. That’s my soapbox for today. I’m gonna need to have a show called “Susies’s Rants.” I get on my soapbox so easily these days.
Let’s talk for a moment about your future, and where you go from here.
Everyone wants to talk about the circumstance — I won’t say “dilemma” or “plight” — but the circumstance of the transitioning artist. Certainly I no longer play boys who jump out of windows. In fact, I don’t play very many 17-year-old boys any more at all. The things that are on the horizon are — I still do title roles, but there are some operas in which I don’t have to carry the show. Fledermaus is a perfect example; they had to talk me into it. I didn’t want to do it, because I’ve never enjoyed Fledermaus, but this production really was terrific. I enjoyed it. There was some joy in not having the responsibility of having to carry the whole show. I wouldn’t want to make a steady diet of that – and eventually I will make a steady diet of that. But it was weird, it was hard to get used to. But there are operas like Capriccio, in which I sing Clairon, and Lulu, in which I’ll sing Countess Geschwitz. Those are two examples.
They’re both good roles for you.
Yeah. And in Poppea, the next time, I will probably sing Ottavia, and not Poppea. I think the last time I sang in Italy, I did a recital, but I did Poppea in Maggio Musicale.
When you sang Poppea in Houston, Frederica von Stade sang Ottavia. She made me understand that Ottavia really doesn’t believe she’s done anything wrong. It’s a great role; I hadn’t fully appreciated it before.
Yes! It is. But that’s Flicka, too. That’s the grace of Flicka, that she would bring to Ottavia, “I didn’t do anything wrong. I’m just the cast-aside wife, addio, addio.” I think it’s brilliant.
Are you ready for the transitional phase of your career?
I’m a little afraid of it. I’m a little afraid of change, and saying goodbye to the last bow. But I’m sure I’ll adapt. I mean, honestly, the real story is that where the professional life starts to transition, so does my personal life, and my personal life is fine. That can have some room to bloom. [Note: Graham reunited a few years ago with her college sweetheart.]  The other thing that’s interesting is that what I’m noticing now, in this phase of my life, is that I’m starting to be called on to participate in things that are non-singing or non-operatic. I’m asked to do interviews [during broadcasts and HD simulcasts], to host events, to do things as a personality. Which I love. When hosting, or just in general, onstage, too, people know I’ve been at it long enough, that I’ve earned the opportunity to stand back from it and make a little bit of fun if I need to — in a loving way, of course! And that’s my comedy right there in a nutshell. We’ve come full circle!