BWW Interview: For Mezzo SUSAN GRAHAM, No Warhorses Need Apply

I'm not a warhorse kind of singer," mezzo Susan Graham states matter-of-factly. "A. I'm a mezzo. B. I'm not a character mezzo. C. I'm not a contralto. The iconic opera repertoire for mezzos, Amneris (AIDA), Azucena (IL TROVATORE), even Eboli (DON CARLO)--those kinds of roles aren't my stock and trade because my voice sits high and has a different timbre."

Well, what then is her milieu? It's the likes of Handel, who composed several of the arias she has been singing this winter at the Met, as one of the stars of THE ENCHANTED ISLAND, a kind of Baroque "jukebox opera," where she has been singing alongside Placido Domingo and David Daniels. But it's also Rodgers & Hammerstein's THE KING & I, which she is doing for the first time this June at the Chatelet in Paris.

A jukebox opera

Think of THE ENCHANTED ISLAND as a kind of 18th-century MAMMA MIA--an operatic pastiche that consists of a battery of show-stopping arias by Baroque composers in the context of a new story concocted for the occasion by its director, Jeremy Sams, that bows to Shakespeare's THE TEMPEST and A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM.

This is the kind of production that caters to the whims of its stars, by changing its rundown of arias when the cast changes, as was common in earlier operatic history. For example, when Graham joined the opera this year, she brought Handel's "Stà nell'Ircana" (sung in English as "Now it's returning") to the mix, from the opera ALCINA, replacing a Vivaldi aria that had previously been in its place.

"Frankly, I'm used to doing very serious Handel, so when I first heard the Met was doing this pastiche I reserved judgment about it until after I saw it," she recalls, but admits she was hooked immediately on the playfulness and technology of the production, referring to it as "Handel goes to Disneyland." "This time around, we've had some significant changes--the most notable is having conductor Patrick Summers in the pit. I've done lots of Handel with him and it makes a big difference. He has a real sense of this music: It's very taut and energetic, cohesive. He doesn't let anything drag or fall apart, in my opinion, and for that reason--in addition to some cuts--the show is shorter and moves faster."

Scared of Baroque?

"I don't know why people are scared of Baroque right now," says Graham. "Audiences who come to ENCHANTED ISLAND enjoy it--but there are many people who don't know that they should come. They don't understand that there's great singing and a spectacular production," she adds. "What Danielle [deNiese, her soprano co-star] does, it's a fully fleshed out, rounded, glamorous performance. And as for David's [Daniels] voice, it is unique, because he has a warmth and roundness that not many countertenors have. He's also a fantastic musician." And what Graham herself does, in this writer's opinion, is pretty spectacular, too.

Graham finds the perception of Baroque opera "very distressing." "Opera companies are reluctant to do the great works from this period because they don't feel there's an audience for them. They say, 'Nobody comes to them.' Well, I think if they're well done and have good singers--and are done stylishly--they can be very effective. They just need better marketing."

"Pants" roles and French music

Of course, Graham's career is more than Baroque operas. Trying to find her place in the world of vocal performance--and for roles that would showcase the unique flexibility and warmth of her voice--she gravitated to the French repertoire, as well as to the "pants" roles of Richard Strauss, earlier in her career. "I've done Charlotte in WERTHER, many Octavians {ROSENKAVALIER], the Composer in ARIADNE AUF NAXOS, et cetera. Beyond that, I had to look for roles of great magnitude that might not be as well known because they're not soprano parts. Obviously, I'm never going to be a Tosca, Butterfly or Mimi. That's not my voice."

One of the characters that attracted her was the title role in Gluck's IPHIGENIE EN TAURIDE, which was written for the Paris Opera around 1780. Though it's another role that's not exactly a household name--and one of many lesser known but musically fulfilling works in her repertoire--IPHIGENIE offered her a calling card to many of the world's great opera houses, including the Met, La Scala, the Paris Opera, San Francisco, Chicago, Salzburg and Covent Garden. Though it had been done in New York at City Opera and at the Glimmerglass Festival, it took Robert Carsen's "great production," as she calls it--along with the version done by Stephen Wadsworth at the Met, with Graham and Placido Domingo--to put it on the modern map.

"I'm not an intellectual music lover"

Her work in this and other French operas--among them Massenet's CHERUBIN, which was her Covent Garden debut, and LES TROYENS and WERTHER, preserved on DVD--have brought her Order of the Legion of Honor for her contributions to French music (and impeccable accent). But while she loves performing en francais, Graham feels that it's important for her to sing in English, both in operas and song.

"I'm not an intellectual music lover," she explains. "I hear with my heart and express with my heart. When you sing in your native language, you bring an undefinable emotional connection to it that doesn't have to go through the filter of translation or assumptions." She continues, "It's an immediate, cultural instinct for context. I think that's very valuable and I always try to program some American or English music." Jake Heggie is a favorite of hers, because music has elements of modernity but "it still has emotional veracity and expression that are very important to me."

For example, she was in the world premiere of Heggie's DEAD MAN WALKING in San Francisco (as the character that brought Susan Sarandon an Oscar), along with two premieres at the Met: Tobias Picker's AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY and John Harbison's THE GREAT GATSBY. She has also recorded vocal music by Heggie as well as Ned Rorem, Samuel Barber and Charles Ives, among others, along with French masters including Hector Berlioz, Francis Poulenc and Claude Debussy, whose works are staples of her recital work.

What she likes to sing

What about the younger generation of composers, like Nico Muhly, whose TWO BOYS was at the Met last fall? Here, she was more hesitant. "Sometimes I have difficulty connecting with it"--a key requirement for her--"because I'm old fashioned about what I like to sing, for now at least. For example, I've never related to Philip Glass's music and Nico's music is a little like that for me. But Harbison's and Picker's music is always melodic, even though it's sometimes difficult to parse. Still, there is an overall arc of music theatre in them."

That doesn't mean she's set in her opinions. "There are certain pieces I had initially had reservations about but they grew on me. A perfect example is THE ASPERN PAPERS by Dominick Argento, based on a novella by Henry James. It's challenging, but it's a really good piece. I did the role of Sonia 20 years ago in Washington, DC, and had mixed feelings about it. But it grew on me and I recently did a 25th anniversary production in Dallas--this time as Tina, the leading role--that I thought it was kind of cool."

Shall we dance?

This summer, Graham is venturing into another area of American music, and it's the closest that she has come to taking on a warhorse (granted, it's a warhorse of a different color): Rodgers & Hammerstein's THE KING AND I. She is doing this quintessential piece of musical comedy in English at the Chatelet Theatre in Paris, in June. Though the French have traditionally been resistant to the charms of this brand of American theatre, there's been a change of air since Jean-Pierre Choplin took over this theatre a half dozen-odd years ago, bringing musicals including the French premieres of Stephen Sondheim's works.

Graham's first leading musical theatre role, in high school back in Midland, Texas, (she's a native of Roswell, New Mexico) was as Maria in THE SOUND OF MUSIC, which made it clear to her that she needed to be a singer rather than a pianist. This opportunity to play Anna Leonowens came about rather unexpectedly: through British director Lee Blakely, who works regularly at the Chatelet as well as at the Santa Fe Opera, which Graham considers her "heart home" (where she feels "connected and rejuvenated"). They worked together last summer at Santa Fe in Offenbach's comedic LA GRANDE DUCHESSE DE GEROLSTEIN and when he proposed the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic, Graham decided "if not now, when?"

The real challenge

"I won't lie: I'm daunted by the genre," she admits, "but I'm having help. Barbara Cook"--reigning queen of the American Songbook--"is lending a hand on working through the role. We're doing 'Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?' which is a hard one because it's the rage aria. She understands my singing very well and what I can ask of myself. My goal has always been to get to the essential truth of what an aria, or a scene, or a single note is about. For me, the thrill is finding the real truth, whether it's pain or joy or rage or jealously and transmitting that through a Handel aria, for example. For that reason, I'm very excited about bringing that to what I sing or say in THE KING AND I.

"The real challenge," she admits, laughing, "is the dancing." This is the show, after all, with the iconic "Shall We Dance?" number. "Luckily, the choreographer is Peggy Hickey, who also choreographed GRANDE DUCHESSE, and is one of my best friends. I can tell her to be kind. Also, I wear a gown with a six-foot wide skirt that will cover up any footwork problems!"

What does she think about doing a role like Mrs. Lovett in Sondheim's SWEENEY TODD, which was being done across the plaza at Avery Fisher Hall at the New York Philharmonic during her run in at the Met? She is more than a little wary about it, even though ENCHANTED ISLAND's conductor Patrick Summers thought it might suit her. "I'm not sure about it, from what I've heard of the score. I'm not a belter and I don't use chest voice liberally, not yet at least. I have too much to protect right now," the charming, thoughtful singer says. "But talk to me about it in 10 years."


Photo: Mezzo Susan Graham as Sycorax in THE ENCHANTED ISLAND

Photo by Ken Howard/The Metropolitan Opera

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From This Author Richard Sasanow