Conversation Piece:

Mezzo-Soprano  SUSAN  GRAHAM

By Bruce Duffie




Susan Graham is among the small but vibrant group of mezzo-sopranos who are gaining a popularity which might just rival their higher-voiced sisters.  Later in this interview, she mentions the ones who have blazed the trail as well as a few of her current colleagues, and tries to show how it all fits together to make an ensemble which brings their artistry to new heights.

Born and raised in the Southwest, Graham now travels to many of the important places in the world where opera is regarded as something very special and close to the heart.  Besides singing Mozart in Salzburg, she presents Berlioz in Paris, and interprets Richard Strauss in both Munich and Vienna.  Being thoroughly American, she also sings roles by compatriot composers, and has recorded a CD of songs by Ned Rorem.  [Names which are links on this page refer to my interviews elsewhere on this website.]  Other discs include Mozart & Gluck arias, songs of Hahn and Berlioz, plus complete sets of Handel's Alcina, Béatrice et Bénédict and L'Enfance du Christ of Berlioz, and Schumann's Scenes from Goethe's Faust.

A favorite role is Cherubino, which she has given to many cities, including Chicago in 1998, with Renée Fleming as the Countess and Bryn Terfel as Figaro in the Peter Hall production conducted by Zubin Mehta.  It was during this run that I had the pleasure of chatting with Graham in a conference room in the offices of the company.  On the wall was the poster from the first season of the production which depicted Cherubino jumping out of the window.  It showed the actuality which the audience heard but never saw, since the picture displayed the young lad clearly falling into the glass flowerbox with Antonio looking amazed at this noisy event.  So we began our chat with that character.....

Bruce Duffie:    Do you like being a boy onstage?

Susan Graham:    Oh yeah! I was climbing trees and playing kickball and throwing Frisbees when I was a little girl.  I grew up with an older brother and he involved me in some of his baseball games at an early age.  Usually I had to be a base! They had to run by and knock me down on their way to third! I have five nephews whom I've watched grow up in all stages of boyhood and adolescence and puberty and all those awkward times, so I feel like I've had ample character study.  The nephews range in age right now from about 14 to 25, and I was getting interested in opera and singing these kinds of roles just about the time they were coming along.  So it's been very interesting study along the way.

BD:    Does it then make it more difficult when you play a woman onstage?

SG:    No, because that part comes kinda naturally! [Laugher] I don't have to study that part too hard.  But there was a summer in Santa Fe where I was doing two operas at the same time - Ariadne and Così Fan Tutte.  Who could be more different than the Composer and Dorabella? Sometimes it was back-to-back on consecutive nights and I'd have to think, "Now tonight I have a hoopskirt and must walk feminine."

BD:    Does it confuse you in your personal life at all, or are you still a tomboy?

SG:    Oh, I've always been very athletically inclined and my physicality is kind of sporty.  I rollerblade and play tennis and run and do all those kinds of things, plus I'm almost six feet tall, so it's hard for me to assume the persona of a 'girly-girl'.  However, I can dress up like a girl and I love feminine things just like everybody does.

BD:    What's the difference between a 'girly-girl' and a 'womanly-woman'?

SG:    I come from the Southwest, and the culture of the Southern Belle goes far enough west that it gets into Texas and New Mexico where I grew up.  Maybe not so much any more, but little girls were raised with the whole Beauty Pageant mentality.  That's what I call 'girly-girl'; very feminine with big hot-rollers in the hair.  I didn't do that, but a 'womanly-woman' is what I try to embody now, which is a woman who is confident enough to be herself and not have to bow down to some cultural expectations of what a 'girly-girl' is.  A 'womanly-woman' is a person who just is who she is and feels good about it.

BD:    You're a mezzo, so you don't play many victim-characters onstage.  Is that good for your psyche?

grahamhttpSG:    For me it is.  I have a hard time playing a victim, though there are probably those in my personal life who would disagree. [Laughter] I like playing stronger characters, I really do.  That's another reason that some of the male roles really appeal to me.  Some have an awful lot of vulnerability, which makes them human, and they're young, primarily.  The boys that I play are young boys, so it's an interesting mix to play the masculine strength against the youthful vulnerability.  That's the challenge in most of these trouser-roles.  On the other hand, most of the skirt-roles that I play have quite a bit of pluck.  Even Charlotte, who could be perceived as a victim, ultimately has to make a very difficult choice out of strength.  Some of the things that have happened to her are not of her own doing, so we could say that she was a victim, but I don't think she approaches life feeling that way.

BD:    Whenever Massenet's Werther is brought up, I always ask if Charlotte would have been happy with him if there had been no Albert?

SG:    That's a good question.  Initially the magnetism and attraction would have sustained them for a little while...

BD:    ...Two weeks, two months, two years?

SG:    Probably two to six months, and then ultimately he would have driven her crazy.  He kinda drives me crazy with all that whining!  Get on with it already!  Don't get me wrong, it's fantastic music and I do love the opera.  It's so powerful and I love doing it.

BD:    Could he have convinced her to follow him to a double-suicide?

SG:    I don't think she would have done that to the kids.  She saw how much her mother's death devastated her and her brothers and sisters, so I don't think she would have done that.  But that's just a guess.  It's like the question of whether Octavian and Sophie would have been happy together.

BD:    Well, what happens in the 'fourth act' of Rosenkavalier?

SG:    Buh-bye! [Laugher] See-ya!  I'm on to the next little girl!  I have a feeling that Octavian grows up to be Don Giovanni.  Cherubino definitely grows up to be Don Giovanni.

BD:    Is that why you whistled his tune when you entered as Cherubino?

SG:    [Big grin.]

BD:    Was that your idea or the director's idea?

SG:    This time it was my idea.  I felt that was my little inside-wink.

BD:    Well, in Don Giovanni, part of the dinner music is from Figaro... Since we're there, tell me the secret of singing Mozart.

SG:    Clarity.  I started to say 'purity', but it's more about clarity; musical clarity and a clarity of idea.  Every time I do Figaro - and Così for that matter - I come away amazed at the modern-day relevance of these words, and the modern-day relevance of the philosophy of the personalities of these characters.  We can apply it so much.  Everyone says, "The genius of Mozart is that you can apply it to modern-day life, and it's universal and timeless..."  Well, everyone says it because it's true.  The things that come out of Cherubino's mouth are so evocative of the experience of an adolescent who's in love with life, who's breathless and doesn't know which end is up.  One must be honest with those emotions, and the music has to come from the heart.  It is so un-fettered, un-adorned, un-romanticized.  It's not Puccini.  It's not meant to squeeze your heart.  It's meant to just tap it gently and say, "You remember this feeling, don't you?"

BD:    [Voiced like the character on Monty Python] "Wink, wink, nudge, nudge."

SG:    [Also voicing the Monty Python character] "Say no more!" [Laughter, then back to her own voice.] I think that's what it is - you don't have to say any more.  It just is what it is.  The way that he interweaves these personalities - like in the second act finale - is like the Jupiter Symphony.  I remember studying that symphony in Graduate School, and all these themes that are going upside-down and retrograde-inversion all at the same time in mirror images of one another...  That interweaves all the phrases and themes, and he does it the same way in his operas.  His fantastic ensemble-writing was so innovative, where he was able to incorporate so many different ideas in a single time.  Every character was talking about a different idea or a different problem or a different solution, all at the same time.  Maybe you can't get any of the words because everyone is singing different ones, but the whole idea comes across - even if the idea is just confusion or panic.  We get that.

BD:    How much of that is Da Ponte and how much is Mozart?

SG:    The musical side is Mozart and that's the primary thing.

BD:    Is it easier to bring these characters to life when there is a strong libretto - such as Da Ponte or Hoffmansthal?

SG:    Yes.  I have to say yes.  For me, the words are the starting point.

BD:    But it's not 'prima la parola' .....

SG:    From an intellectual place, it's prima la parola, but in performance, it's prima la musica.  But let's face it, there are some operatic texts that aren't genius.  Da Ponte and Hoffmanstahl aside, sometimes the words we sing are so trite and repetitive, but the way that the music is set makes it work.  Take Werther as an example.  Goethe was no slouch, but when the title character says, "I'm dying" for 25 minutes, the only thing that can sustain it is the music.

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BD:    You get offered a whole pile of roles.  How do you decide whether to say yes or no?

SG:    Vocally, and, I have to say, temperamentally as well.  I've been offered some roles that I could sing, but they just aren't me.  Rossini comes to mind.  I've been offered Rosina a lot, and I've done it once.  It was good and it wasn't difficult to sing.  I had kind of a good time singing it, but it's not where I live.  She's a strong woman in another way.  She runs the show - like Susanna - but it just didn't light my fire.  There are so many people who live and breathe that stuff and are so wonderful at it - Jenny Larmore, Cecilia Bartoli, Susie Mentzer - they live there, and more power to them.  I lean much more toward Octavian and Charlotte.  Bel Canto is not my first love.  Everyone is talking about this 'mezzo-mania' that's going on, and I think we're all different enough to all be interesting and all have something to offer.  I carefully considered Gluck's Iphigénie en Tauride.  It's not automatically assumed that a lyric mezzo would do that, but I sang through the role and it sits well and it moves well.  It has a high enough tessitura to be really interesting to me, but not so high that it's a strangler.  I have to consider range.  I'm not a low mezzo, I'm a high mezzo.  If a role lies too much in the middle and too low, then it's not interesting to me.  The strength of my mezzo is closer to the top.

BD:    Do you have enough strength to resist those who ask for Tosca and those kinds of things?

grahamSG:    Absolutely! I've no problem saying 'no' to that! I don't want to get into that arena.

BD:    It seems like every high mezzo gets pushed into trying that one.

SG:    I know, and Musetta and even Mimì sometimes.  There are people who have said to me that I could sing Mimì, and I respond, "MOI???"  I let the real sopranos handle that.  I'm so happy in my repertoire.  The characters fit me.  I love singing Hansel.  I made my professional debut singing that role and I'm thrilled when I get to sing it again.  Octavian and Composer are mainstays.  Sesto is new and will probably become a mainstay.  Charlotte and Dorabella are also good, plus the Berlioz heroines - Béatrice, Marguerite, Didon.  You have to consider the people who have sung these roles successfully before to look at the common thread.  Is it an interpretive success?  Was it a vocal success, a matter of the weight of the role?  And then, can I make some of those things work for me?

BD:    Do you feel you're part of a lineage of mezzo-sopranos?

SG:    Yes I do, in a way.  The reason there's such an abundance of mezzos today is because of Marilyn Horne and Frederica von Stade and Christa Ludwig and Tatiana Troyanos, and, and, and...  But those first two were probably the most instrumental in bringing lesser-known works into the forefront, even those which are not necessarily roles that I sing.

BD:    I don't see you as Arsace.

SG:    No, no.  Rossini boys are too low for me.

BD:    [Stroking his own facial hair]  Although you'd look good in a beard.

SG:    Well thank you.  I'll try yours on for size! [Laughter]

BD:    Being tall and striking, is it difficult working with tenors who look like me - short and dumpy?

SG:    Never! I have the feeling that it's tougher for them than it is for me.  It's not a problem for me at all.  I've done productions with tenors who are considerably less tall than I.  With clever staging, it can be managed.  But, goodness, I have lost plenty of work because I'm too tall.  In my stocking feet I'm 5'10".  Opera has gotten much more visual in our generation, so when a director wants the cast - such as the six in Così - to be somewhat uniform in size, I'm not chosen.

BD:    Is it a good thing that opera is more visual nowadays?

SG:    It depends on what your priorities are.  The fact that our whole culture today - TV, film, video - is soooo visual, it couldn't help but flow over into opera.  And economically, opera has to compete with those other forms.  People want to see people who are nice to look at.  I'm NOT saying that the vocal side isn't as important.  Absolutely it is, and there will always be such fantastic voices that nobody cares what the visual is.  They just knock you down and that's the basis of opera.

BD:    We seem to be getting a better balance now.

SG:    Right.  Gone are the stand-and-sing days.  The balance of the theater and the music is important in opera.  I'm glad that I'm living and working in a time when the theatrical side is gaining a lot of importance.  It's half the fun.  There's one director that I like to work with, but every time he sees me coming, he puts a ladder in the set and makes me sing while hanging off the highest step!  He did it to me twice so far and I'm just waiting for him to do it again!  But he does it because it's interesting, and he knows I'll do it.  He tells me that if it's too difficult, he'll find something else.  But that just gets me going!

BD:    It's a dare!

SG:    Right.  I'll double-dog dare ya!  That's what it is.

BD:    Does it give you a sense of satisfaction, then, when you accomplish it?

SG:    Absolutely.  But sometimes I find myself running around so much doing all the things that the director has asked me, that I'm completely out of breath after having just run up that ladder to sing the hardest phrase of the opera.  That's when I ask myself why I agreed to do this.  Why didn't I just say no????  [Singing the tune] "I'm jest a girl who cain't say no!"

BD:    Couldn't you make a few alterations in later performances?

SG:    I could, but then you get into problems with the lights.  They're pre-set, so that little blue spot which comes on at just that moment will be focused on an empty ladder if I'm not up there!


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BD:    How do you divide your career between opera and concert?

grahamSG:    I'm trying to strike much more of a balance now.  In the beginning it was just about all opera with occasional concerts thrown in.  I will probably tip the scales toward opera for as long as I can because I love opera.  I love the doing of it.  I love the theater, but it's been a priority of mine to get more concerts going here in America.  I've done Nuits d'Été practically everywhere, and my first solo CD was a whole Berlioz collection.  I think it's important, and I readily embrace the opportunity to just stand and sing.  That's kind of fun.

BD:    Do you sing the same for the microphone as you do for the live public?

SG:    It depends, quite honestly.  Philosophically, yes, but it depends on the repertoire.  When I sing Berlioz arias, you bet!  I have to give just as much intensity and energy, and with a hundred-piece orchestra, you can't really croon into the microphone.  However, there is a certain kind of intimacy in a recital disc with piano.  Hopefully you can do that in concert, but given the particulars of the hall, you might not be able to bring it down as closely as you can for the microphone.  Basically I have the same technique whether I'm in a 2000-seat hall, or a small studio.  People ask me how it is to sing at Lyric Opera of Chicago, or the Bastille in Paris, but I just sing how I sing.  I can't produce more sound that I can produce.  My forte is forte and my piano is piano.  How soft I can bring it down does depend on the place, but I can't make more sound than I can make.  I'm not a huge voice.  I have a voice that has enough forward projection - spin we call it - that I can get over an orchestra while singing very softly.  I've been told that it carries just fine.  It's about intensity and energy.

BD:    Do you ever wish you could take the voice out of the throat at night and put it in a box - like a violin or a bassoon?

SG:    [Laughing] Yes, and go out and have a good time and not have to worry about hurting it.  But I don't have to buy an extra seat on an airplane like 'cellists do!  The health concerns of having the instrument inside our body is the bane of our existence.

BD:    So, on the night of performance, is it always there?

SG:    Well... 99.9% of the time, if you walk onstage you assume it's going to be there.  The other night, when I fell on the floor in a tiny temper-tantrum in front of the Countess, I kicked up a small cloud of dust and something must have gotten into my throat because in the next recitative, my voice just didn't respond for a moment.  I tried to get through it as best I could because I knew that in 30 seconds I'd be leaving the stage and could get some water to clear it.  But it was a moment of panic.  I thought, "Thank God it didn't happen just before Voi che sapete."  Once, some years ago in a production in Nice, it did happen just before that aria.  I was a little bit sick, but it was early in my career and I thought, "It's just Cherubino - not Brünnhilde.  I can do it.  I'll keep it very easy and very forward."  There were no understudies or covers, so I lost my voice right there and I stumbled through the aria.  Usually it's a show-stopper with lots of applause.  That night, you could hear a pin drop.  The audience was as shocked as I was, and the Countess's next line is, "Bravo, che bella voce."

BD:    She should have made it a question, "Bella voce?"

SG:    Really!  But she couldn't help the smirk on her face so it was rather amusing for all.  Here in Chicago, Renée Fleming knew exactly what was happening because we'd been doing Rosenkavalier together in Paris a couple months ago and the same thing happened to her.  Right at the start of the Trio she got a little phlegm and needed to cough, but at that moment, she couldn't just stop and cough it out.  So she turned upstage for a moment and quietly cleared her throat.  Barbara Bonney, the Sophie, and I were on opposite sides of the stage and we were just 'willing' it to be OK for Renée, and sending her every bit of strength we could muster.  It went very well and I thought, "Yup, there's a pro."

BD:    Every singer must have had that happen, so to have colleagues be supportive is the best thing.

SG:    Yes.  We all know what we're going through.  For us, in our times, maybe we're a little more cognizant of how tough it is to do what we do and be away from home and be without family and friends.  We really rely on each other.  Often my casts are wonderful friends onstage and wonderful friends offstage.  We all go out together and attend jazz clubs and have parties at each others' places on off nights.  Even with casts in other operas which are running, we all spend time together and we're all friends.  That is so important.  When I leave here and go to Vienna, I'll run into one or another of the singers from here, plus one or another friends from another production in Italy or France.

BD:    It sounds like a traveling road show!

SG:    It is.  We're like a circus group. [Laughter]

BD:    So the conductor is the lion-tamer?

SG:    No, he's the Ringmaster of the circus!  After a time, there's a friend everywhere you go.

BD:    Can you bring someone new into the circle?

SG:    Absolutely.  Next month, I'll be in Turin, Italy, singing Ariadne with Debbie Voigt.  I've known her for years, but it's the first time we will have sung together.  Then we'll both do that same opera here in Chicago next season.  So it's a never-ending process of widening our family.  It's what keeps us sane.

BD:    Is the audience a friend, or are we eavesdropping on a private party?

SG:    No, they're friends.  Sometimes the audience is eavesdropping on a party, and there are some times that we're having so much fun onstage that the characters take us over.  A wink back and forth will have us off and running and you don't know what might happen.  Ultimately, though, I feel I'm giving a gift from my heart to the audience.  One night, a friend of mine was visiting, and let it slip to Bryn that I was ticklish.  So he made it a point to torture Cherubino in different way!

BD:    Is that what helps to keep things bright during the 3rd and 5th and 8th performances in a run?

SG:    That's part of it.  You don't have to change it to keep it exciting, but it's nice to challenge yourself by throwing in slightly different ideas here and there.  A lot of us do our recitatives differently every night.

BD:    When you walk out onstage, are you portraying a character, or do you actually become that character?

SG:    I become that character.  Everything I do on the stage is informed by Cherubino at that moment.  Unless something extraordinary happens, the thoughts are Cherubino's thoughts.  But even if I hurt myself or my shoe flies off, I have to think how Cherubino has to deal with it.  That's not to say we're not talking as Susan and Renée and Bryn, but the character choices are definitely Cherubino's.

BD:    Now in this production, you really play up to the Countess.  Is that because you have an inkling of what will happen in the third Beaumarchais drama?

SG:    [Laughing] I think it's partly the ease that Renée and I have with each other.  I thought about how much that would inform him, but he's just so smitten.  It's like when you have the biggest crush on your school teacher when you're a young boy.  We just did Rosenkavalier together, so maybe there's a little bit of Octavian spilling over!


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This past February [2001], WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago was sold and changed format.  Bruce Duffie is now taking a bit of a rest while looking for another place to share his library and talents.  Meanwhile, he continues to contribute interviews to this, and other publications.  Next time in these pages, a chat with Donald Palumbo, Chorus Master of Lyric Opera of Chicago.  And for the Verdi issue in December, the noted Romanian baritone Alexandru Agache.

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© 1998 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded in the office suite of Lyric Opera of Chicago on February 23, 1998.  Portions were used (along with recordings) on WNIB in 2000, and on WNUR in 2004.  This transcription was made and published in The Opera Journal in June of 2001, and was posted on this website soon thereafter.  The photos and links were added in 2016.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.