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Life, Continued

Susan Graham, Didon in the Met revival of Les Troyens, speaks to WILLIAM R. BRAUN about the overwhelming changes in her life during the past decade of stardom.

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Portraits by Ken & Carl Fischer Photography, NY
Makeup and hair by Ralph Castelli / Clothes styled by Catherine Glazer / Necklace: Claudia Lobao; bracelet: Rodrigo Otazu; ring: Manon Von Gerkan
© Ken & Carl Fischer Photography 2012
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© Ken & Carl Fischer Photography 2012
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© Ken & Carl Fischer Photography 2012

"Everything that has happened to me in the last nine years has happened to Didon," says Susan Graham, who is preparing to sing Berlioz's Queen of Carthage at the Met this month — her first outing in the role since she made her debut in it in Paris in 2003. "Everything. Life. Loss. Family, friends. Everything that happens to a person in a decade of life. I was in my early forties then. I'm in my early fifties now. That's huge." Her summation seems almost too pat. But Graham, seated on the couch at the home of some friends in Santa Fe and sporting an epic pair of perfectly broken-in cowboy boots, had clearly thought about the similarities before the topic was raised. Freely offering her thoughts on the way her voice has matured, on the deaths of people close to her and on the unexpected rekindling of an old college relationship, she makes a convincing case.

"For instance, Didon's opening scene, where she's the queen and she's expressing her gratitude to her subjects for making their existence, their little principality, as successful and profitable and wonderful as it is. I think that for somebody who has worked really hard for twenty-five years, doing what they've done, whether that's Didon or whether that's me, and who has achieved a certain gratifying and satisfying level and what their accomplishments have provided for them, whether that's Didon or whether that's me, it's a little easier for me now in that scene to feel more of the nobility and the noblesse oblige of the position of Didon. She's surrounded by people who love her, and she loves them back, and that's kind of how I feel all the time at this point in my life." 

And Graham has already felt the arc of the character widening. She inextricably associates her Paris performances of Didon with the death of her friend, soprano Susan Chilcott, who passed away just before the run of the show. "It was my first Didon, so every time I sang 'Adieu, fière cité,' and of course the death scene, it was very fresh, very on the surface." A few days before she was interviewed last August, Graham sang the scene again in concert in Santa Fe, offering one of the most impassioned performances some of us had ever heard her give. "And of course, when I sang it again the other night, there was the underlay of doing those earlier performances, and even just in a concert it came back to me."

Berlioz, in fact, is a convenient yardstick for any assessment of Graham's career. Her first orchestral album, recorded for Sony as long ago as 1996–97, was all Berlioz, as were the first two programs she ever sang with the Boston Symphony, while her opera debut in France came with Béatrice et Bénédict in Lyon. Moreover, Graham has become today's most prominent Marguerite in La Damnation de Faust, and the transformation of her performance of Marguerite's aria "D'amour l'ardente flamme" from the Sony disc to an all-encompassing version at Tanglewood last July is instructive. The first recording is a lovely piece of singing, with many words and phrases getting perfectly apt, personal expression. But the Tanglewood version, with the partnership of conductor Charles Dutoit, was something extraordinary. It was as if all the surface expression had now been internalized and recombined, with a new performance emerging as a single entity. Complimented on the Tanglewood performance, Graham leans forward on the couch and demonstrates how she views the aria. "I've now done five or six staged productions of the piece, which used to be rarely staged. Once you've done something onstage, you never sing it in the same way in concert again. The aria is the succession of feelings, the arc of her hope." Graham sings the middle section, showing the breathless expectation she finds in the music's silences, fixing the gaze of her solitary audience member. "What's changed for me since the first time I sang it on that recording to the most recent time I sang it two weeks ago is that I've learned a lot about hope — and loneliness — and devastation. As humans we live out these things over and over, and every time I come back to music like that, I have other associations to bring to it. Now, I don't sit there and think, 'Oh, I'm going to remember this event that happened in my life, so that I can feel this feeling onstage.' It just happens all of a piece and engages your whole physicality and brings it to life."

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As Gluck’s Iphigénie at the Met, with Plácido Domingo (Oreste)
© Beth Bergman 2012

There is the hint of a smile on her lips. Graham makes no secret of one of the most influential of those life events. She needs little prodding to tell what she glowingly dubs "the Clay and Susan story," the type of story increasingly familiar to many people in mid-life. Clay, a handsome, taciturn man, was a classmate at Texas Tech. "He's a technical-director guy, a video and lighting technician. His training is in theater. We were something of an item in college. And then I moved to New York, and he stayed in Texas for a while, but we always stayed in touch as friends. But he got married, and I was in relationships. Then three years ago I was singing Damnation of Faust in Chicago, and he was working in Chicago, and we just wanted to make time to see each other, and we had dinner. And his life had changed radically, and we just rediscovered each other at a time in our lives when we were both available. And it has brought a familiarity back into my life. It's somebody that you don't have to explain anything to. You don't have to explain the life, because they've seen you, from a distance, doing your life." Clay has two children, twins, from his marriage. At this point they troop through the living room for a round of quick, tight hugs. (Graham has her own home nearby but asked to meet at her friends' place because she has promised the twins some time in the swimming pool after a morning of horseback riding.) Told that the pair really ought to be appearing in commercials for something very, very good for you, she observes, "They're friendly, sweet, adaptable kids. They're open to me, and I'm open to them, and that's been a big blessing in my life."

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As Didon at the Châtelet in Paris, 2003
© Colette Masson/Roger-Viollet/TopFoto 2012

If there was a single project that crystallized Graham's ability to incorporate life experiences into her operatic roles, both from an outsider's viewpoint and from Graham's own perspective, it was the experience of working with director Willy Decker on the role of Charlotte in Massenet's Werther at the Netherlands Opera in 1996. (Decker is best known in the U.S. for his 2005 Salzburg production of La Traviata, which is currently in the repertory of the Met.) With Decker, Graham says, she discovered "wall acting." Receiving a perplexed stare, she elaborates. "Willy is so intense, and he rarely smiles, and he's always with this knitted brow, and he looks so concerned about something. He'll demonstrate something, and usually he's in a sort of crumpled position against a wall as he's demonstrating the angst that Charlotte is going through, and it's so awful." Graham gives the intensely wounded expression of a ten-year-old boy who has just had his video games taken away for a week. "And in trying to incorporate Willy's angst into my character leaning against a wall, he just got me in a way — it sounds counterintuitive — out of myself. By going so far into myself, I got out of myself. I just got out of the 'I'm an opera singer' presentational, arms-wide stance. Plus, I play a lot of boy roles, and I've learned to physicalize the male characters rather easily, being tomboyish and having lots of nephews and brothers around, being tall with big feet. So when I would play girly characters, this would happen," she says, throwing her arms back with cocked wrists. "And Willy would come up onstage, from the theater, and he would take my hands and actually slap them, no-no-no, so they wouldn't be in that fixed, Barbie-doll position. And that, I guess, is symbolic of a more naturalistic physical approach to character, rather than posing."

Graham's BAFTA-worthy acting skills will be on view when the interview is over. The twins have been waiting as patiently as they can for her to finish. They have strategically placed an extremely realistic rubber snake in the pool, so that it will be the first thing she sees when we walk out to the patio. As we step outside, a look of revulsion crosses her face (and no doubt mine) for a millisecond. But the twins are too young to wait for the payoff and immediately have to tell her what they've done. Graham plays her role of duped spectator to the hilt. "Oh, you mean it's not a real snake? You're telling me it's a rubber snake? Oh, you put a rubber snake in the pool?" She lets them think that they have scored a triumph, and their squeals of delight as they clutch at her skirt go on for a full minute.

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In recital at Carnegie Hall with Malcolm Martineau, 2012
© Brian Harkin 2012

The personable, friendly ease with which Graham talks to her recital audiences can in an interview sometimes seem an understandable attempt to keep things on the surface. If you mention her devastating performance in the Stephen Wadsworth production of Gluck's Iphigénie en Tauride, which required her to be onstage for the entire opera, and ask what she needs in the time before curtain-rise in order to get through it, she is apt to joke that she needs a lot of water and her favorite Ricola lozenges. You'll do better with a musical question. Asked to comment on the relation of Gluck's music to Berlioz's, something she is perhaps best-qualified of all current opera singers to do, she offers a detailed comparison of the similarities between the Iphigénie–Oreste recognition scene and the death throes of Berlioz's Cléopâtre in the cantata La Mort de Cléopâtre. But there is no question that Graham's audience-friendly persona is one of the most engaging in classical music. The Santa Fe concert last August was billed as "Susan Graham and Friends," and she introduced not only all of her selections but everyone else's. Speaking about what happens between the love duet and the final monologue in Les Troyens, she noted, "Then, it all goes wrong." With impeccable comic timing, she adds, "As it does." For her Carnegie Hall recital last February, she left the final group of songs off the printed program, to be announced from the stage. Banter with the audience ensued, perhaps a little more than she bargained for. Wrapping up the evening before her final encore, she said to the audience, "Thank you for being so … um, interactive." Thus, it is a great surprise to hear that her ease with audiences was not innate. "It is only through the confidence built by doing it over and over and over again that I got to this point. Early in my recitaling, my manager, Alec Treuhaft, said to me, 'When you do a recital, you should talk to the audience — you need to speak to them.' And I said, 'I could never, ever talk to an audience. I'm too scared. I can barely get up there and just sing in front of them.' And now they can't shut me up." But singers who want to emulate Graham need to realize that everything she says is worthwhile. Before she sang her final encore at Carnegie, Reynaldo Hahn's "À Chloris," she said only five simple but potent words: "This is my favorite song."

It is no surprise, then, that Graham has a reputation as an easy colleague. Told of the legendary campaigns of Lili Chookasian and Eileen Farrell to crack each other up onstage as a prelude to asking if she has a partner in regular onstage misbehavior, she starts to nod, and she doesn't wait for the end of the question. "Paul Groves," she volunteers. Asked if there was a precipitating event, à la Harvey Korman and Tim Conway, the reply is quick. "Yes, there was. It was Così Fan Tutte at the Met. There was a dress rehearsal where, when the boys go offstage at the end and turn back into themselves from being the 'Albanians,' they were stripping off wigs and putting things back on and rigging mustaches, and they came back onstage, and somehow Paul's wig was not properly secured. And he turned his head sharply, and his head turned but the wig didn't. And he sang the whole thing with a sideburn down his face, in little eighteenth-century rolls. And he had the giggles so badly, and so did I, because he was trying to sing to me. And the thing is, Paul can laugh and sing at the same time, and I cannot. I have to stop. So to get him back — you know how the 'Albanians' have their names, and his is 'Tizio'? The girls had these low-cut gowns, with the décolleté, and everything's pushed up to your chin. And I took a pen, and I drew a heart on my … [here Graham stretches the word out to vaudevillian length] ba-zoom, and I wrote 'Tizio' in it, so that when we're singing a duet he's looking at that. I pity directors who work with us, because we are very, very bad."

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As Berlioz’s Marguerite in Chicago in 2010
© Dan Rest 2012

None of this would matter if Graham had not kept her voice in spectacular condition. At the Santa Fe concert, the first thing she sang was the Mozart concert aria "Ch'io mi scordi di te?" It is the single most perfect piece of music ever written, but it is merciless in exposing the slightest flaws in vocal technique. There is an impossibly long held note, followed by an upward leap and an octave-wide fanfare motif. Even at Santa Fe's high altitude, she took the whole phrase in one breath, with no loss of her burnished tone color. She notes that some things, in fact, are actually easier for her now. "Getting color into the middle voice is easier than it used to be. The top, hopefully, is still there, but it takes a little more work, because it has more of a physically grounded connection." She was always something of a curator for her voice. "Early on, there were some people who wanted me to have a beefier lower voice and wanted me to sing Carmen." (Told that we don't need her to be singing Carmen, she exhales a gratified "Thank you!") "And I remember having a talk with Marlena Malas, and she said, 'Yeah, I can beef up your lower voice. And it's going to cost you those silvery high notes, and people are going to be willing to pay you a lot more for those silvery high notes than they are for those beefy low notes.'" She never sang Carmen, and she never needed a re-working of her technique. She feels, in fact, that she would not be the best voice teacher, because she never had to analyze and overcome a vocal crisis. In master classes, she never says much about vocal technique, instead concentrating on how to "ignite" the singers into the characters they play. Asked what surprises her most about today's young singers she takes a moment to phrase her answer carefully. "This is not to be unexpected, but I'm surprised by their fear. They're afraid of having a viewpoint sometimes. They fear being wrong. One of the things I think has changed in the twenty years since I was in their position is that singers used to be crazy — wild, eccentric people who led off-the-wall lives. Huge personalities. I wonder where they'll come from in the next generation. I fear there is a lot of cookie-cutter training going on. And I think we need to preserve the kookiness of singers, because that's what brings really interesting stuff to the stage."

In 2011, Graham passed the twentieth anniversary of her Met debut, so it was time for a little reflection. Moreover, by coincidence, on the morning of the day we spoke, The New York Times had published a piece about whether drastically shortened opera seasons, made up of only the most hackneyed repertoire, were "the new normal." Mulling over whether opera is in trouble, she began by observing, "The thing I fear most is that we are not breeding musicians anymore." She lovingly describes her days in elementary school "down the road in Roswell, New Mexico, where every Friday afternoon they'd roll a piano into our class, and any of the fifteen kids in the classroom who were taking piano could play something for the class. And across the border into Texas, where I moved when I was thirteen, that doubles. By the time I got to high school, it was practically professional level." But then she shrugs her shoulders. "Yesterday we went whitewater rafting on the Rio Grande river. Our guide was a twenty-eight-year-old ex-hippie kid, child of hippie parents. And he said," — here Graham throws her head back and throws her arms wide — "'Oh man, I love opera! Opera is so cool. I mean, La Bohème, it's the best love story ever told!' And he's going to The Pearl Fishers tomorrow night. So you know, it's becoming more cool, and anything that becomes more cool, I guess, receives the kind of attention that provides more funding, which makes us able to stretch our wings and maybe be more daring. These things go in phases like anything else. I think we're coming out of a dark phase. I think we have hope." Her eyebrows rise expectantly. It's time to go out to the pool. spacer 

WILLIAM R. BRAUN is a pianist and writer based in Connecticut. 


FROM THE ARCHIVES:  

spacer "Living It Up in Operaworld" Graham’s first cover story (David J. Baker, January 2000)
spacer "Queen of the Desert" The mezzo at home in Santa Fe (F. Paul Driscoll, June 2003)

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