Susan Graham is among the small but vibrant group of
who are gaining a popularity which might just rival their higher-voiced
sisters. Later in this interview, she mentions the ones who have
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
to new heights.
Born and raised in the Southwest, Graham now travels to many of
important places in the world where opera is regarded as something very
special and close to the heart. Besides singing Mozart in
presents Berlioz in Paris, and interprets Richard Strauss in both
and Vienna. Being thoroughly American, she also sings roles by
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
Mozart & Gluck arias, songs of Hahn and Berlioz, plus complete sets
of Handel's Alcina, Béatrice et
and L'Enfance du Christ of Berlioz, and Schumann's Scenes
A favorite role is Cherubino, which she has given to many
including Chicago in 1998, with Renée Fleming as the Countess
Bryn Terfel as Figaro in the Peter Hall production
conducted by Zubin
Mehta. It was during this run that I had the
chatting with Graham in a conference room in the offices of the
On the wall was the poster from the first season of the production
depicted Cherubino jumping out of the window. It showed the
the audience heard but never saw, since the picture displayed the young
lad clearly falling into the glass flowerbox with Antonio looking
at this noisy event. So we began our chat with that
Do you like being a boy onstage?
Oh yeah! I was climbing trees and playing kickball
and throwing Frisbees when I was a little girl. I grew up with an
brother and he involved me in some of his baseball games at an early
Usually I had to be a base! They had to run by and knock me
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
in age right now from about 14 to 25, and I was getting interested in
and singing these kinds of roles just about the time they were coming
So it's been very interesting study along the way.
Does it then make it more difficult when you play a woman onstage?
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
I was doing two operas at the same time - Ariadne and Così
Fan Tutte. Who could be more different than the Composer and
Sometimes it was back-to-back on consecutive nights and I'd have to
"Now tonight I have a hoopskirt and must walk feminine."
Does it confuse you in your personal life at all, or are you
still a tomboy?
Oh, I've always been very athletically inclined and my physicality
is kind of sporty. I rollerblade and play tennis and run and do
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.
the difference between a 'girly-girl' and a 'womanly-woman'?
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
up. Maybe not so much any more, but little girls were raised with
Beauty Pageant mentality. That's what I call 'girly-girl'; very
with big hot-rollers in the hair. I didn't do that, but a
is what I try to embody now, which is a woman who is confident enough
be herself and not have to bow down to some cultural expectations of
a 'girly-girl' is. A 'womanly-woman' is a person who just is who
and feels good about it.
You're a mezzo, so you don't play many victim-characters
Is that good for your psyche?
For me it is. I have a hard time playing a victim, though there
probably those in my personal life who would disagree. [Laughter] I
playing stronger characters, I really do. That's another reason
of the male roles really appeal to me. Some have an awful lot of
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
against the youthful vulnerability. That's the challenge in most
trouser-roles. On the other hand, most of the skirt-roles that I
quite a bit of pluck. Even Charlotte, who could be perceived as a
ultimately has to make a very difficult choice out of strength.
the things that have happened to her are not of her own doing, so we
say that she was a victim, but I don't think she approaches life
Whenever Massenet's Werther is brought up, I always ask
if Charlotte would have been happy with him if there had been no
That's a good question. Initially the magnetism and
would have sustained them for a little while...
...Two weeks, two months, two years?
Probably two to six months, and then ultimately he would
have driven her crazy. He kinda drives me crazy with all
Get on with it already! Don't get me wrong, it's fantastic music
I do love the opera. It's so powerful and I love doing it.
Could he have convinced her to follow him to a double-suicide?
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
Well, what happens in the 'fourth act' of Rosenkavalier?
Buh-bye! [Laugher] See-ya! I'm on to the next little girl!
have a feeling that Octavian grows up to be Don Giovanni.
grows up to be Don Giovanni.
Is that why you whistled his tune when you entered as Cherubino?
that your idea or the director's idea?
This time it was my idea. I felt that was my little inside-wink.
in Don Giovanni, part of the dinner music is from
Since we're there, tell me the secret of singing Mozart.
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
relevance of these words, and the modern-day relevance of the
of the personalities of these characters. We can apply it so
says, "The genius of Mozart is that you can apply it to modern-day
and it's universal and timeless..." Well, everyone says it
true. The things that come out of Cherubino's mouth are so
the experience of an adolescent who's in love with life, who's
and doesn't know which end is up. One must be honest with those
and the music has to come from the heart. It is so un-fettered,
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,
[Voiced like the character on Monty
Python] "Wink, wink, nudge, nudge."
[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
personalities - like in the second act finale - is like the Jupiter
I remember studying that symphony in Graduate School, and all these
that are going upside-down and retrograde-inversion all at the same
in mirror images of one another... That interweaves all the
themes, and he does it the same way in his operas. His fantastic
was so innovative, where he was able to incorporate so many different
in a single time. Every character was talking about a different
a different problem or a different solution, all at the same
you can't get any of the words because everyone is singing different
but the whole idea comes across - even if the idea is just confusion or
panic. We get that.
How much of that is Da Ponte and how much is Mozart?
The musical side is Mozart and that's the primary thing.
Is it easier to bring these characters to life when there is
a strong libretto - such as Da Ponte or Hoffmansthal?
Yes. I have to say yes. For me, the words are the starting
But it's not 'prima la parola'
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
that aren't genius. Da Ponte and Hoffmanstahl aside, sometimes
we sing are so trite and repetitive, but the way that the music is set
makes it work. Take Werther as an example. Goethe
slouch, but when
the title character says, "I'm dying" for 25 minutes, the only thing
can sustain it is the music.
* * * * *
You get offered a whole pile of roles. How do you decide whether
to say yes or no?
Vocally, and, I have to say, temperamentally as well. I've
offered some roles that I could sing, but they just aren't me.
comes to mind. I've been offered Rosina a lot, and I've done it
was good and it wasn't difficult to sing. I had kind of a good
it, but it's not where I live. She's a strong woman in another
runs the show - like Susanna - but it just didn't light my fire.
are so many people who live and breathe that stuff and are so wonderful
at it - Jenny Larmore, Cecilia Bartoli, Susie Mentzer - they live
and more power to them. I lean much more toward Octavian and
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
and all have something to offer. I carefully considered Gluck's Iphigénie
en Tauride. It's not automatically assumed that a lyric mezzo
do that, but I sang through the role and it sits well and it moves
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
low, then it's not interesting to me. The strength of my mezzo is
to the top.
Do you have enough strength to resist those who ask for Tosca
and those kinds of things?
Absolutely! I've no problem saying 'no' to that! I don't want
to get into that arena.
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?
Do you feel you're part of a lineage of mezzo-sopranos?
Yes I do, in a way. The reason there's such an abundance
of mezzos today is because of Marilyn Horne and
Christa Ludwig and Tatiana
Troyanos, and, and, and... But
two were probably the most instrumental in bringing lesser-known works
into the forefront, even those which are not necessarily roles that I
don't see you as Arsace.
No, no. Rossini boys are too low for me.
[Stroking his own facial hair] Although you'd look good in a
Well thank you. I'll try yours on for size!
and striking, is it difficult working with tenors who look like me -
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
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
In my stocking feet I'm 5'10". Opera has gotten much more visual
generation, so when a director wants the cast - such as the six in Così
- to be somewhat uniform in size, I'm not chosen.
Is it a good thing that opera is more visual nowadays?
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
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,
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.
We seem to be getting a better balance now.
Right. Gone are the stand-and-sing days. The balance of the
and the music is important in opera. I'm glad that I'm living and
in a time when the theatrical side is gaining a lot of
half the fun. There's one director that I like to work with, but
time he sees me coming, he puts a ladder in the set and makes me sing
hanging off the highest step! He did it to me twice so far and
waiting for him to do it again! But he does it because it's
and he knows I'll do it. He tells me that if it's too difficult,
find something else. But that just gets me going!
It's a dare!
Right. I'll double-dog dare ya! That's what it is.
Does it give you a sense of satisfaction, then, when you accomplish
Absolutely. But sometimes I find myself running around so much
doing all the things that the director has asked me, that I'm
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
Why didn't I just say no???? [Singing the tune] "I'm jest a girl
who cain't say no!"
Couldn't you make a few alterations in later performances?
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
be focused on an empty ladder if I'm not up there!
* * * * *
How do you divide your career between opera and concert?
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
probably tip the scales toward opera for as long as I can because I
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
a whole Berlioz collection. I think it's important, and I readily
the opportunity to just stand and sing. That's kind of fun.
Do you sing the same for the microphone as you do for the live
It depends, quite honestly. Philosophically, yes, but it depends
on the repertoire. When I sing Berlioz arias, you bet! I
as much intensity and energy, and with a hundred-piece orchestra, you
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
given the particulars of the hall, you might not be able to bring it
as closely as you can for the microphone. Basically I have the
whether I'm in a 2000-seat hall, or a small studio. People ask me
is to sing at Lyric Opera of Chicago, or the Bastille in Paris, but I
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
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
it - that I can get over an orchestra while singing very softly.
told that it carries just fine. It's about intensity and energy.
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?
[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
airplane like 'cellists do! The health concerns of having the
inside our body is the bane of our existence.
So, on the night of performance, is it always there?
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
temper-tantrum in front of the Countess, I kicked up a small cloud of
and something must have gotten into my throat because in the next
my voice just didn't respond for a moment. I tried to get through
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,
ago in a production in Nice, it did happen just before that aria.
a little bit sick, but it was early in my career and I thought, "It's
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
right there and I stumbled through the aria. Usually it's a
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,
She should have made it a question, "Bella
Really! But she couldn't help the smirk on her face so it was
rather amusing for all. Here in Chicago, Renée Fleming
what was happening because we'd been doing Rosenkavalier
in Paris a couple months ago and the same thing happened to her.
at the start of the Trio she
got a little phlegm and needed to cough,
at that moment, she couldn't just stop and cough it out. So she
upstage for a moment and quietly cleared her throat. Barbara
Sophie, and I were on opposite sides of the stage and we were just
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
Every singer must have had that happen, so to have colleagues
be supportive is the best thing.
Yes. We all know what we're going through. For us, in our
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
on each other. Often my casts are wonderful friends onstage and
friends offstage. We all go out together and attend jazz clubs
parties at each others' places on off nights. Even with casts in
operas which are running, we all spend time together and we're all
That is so important. When I leave here and go to Vienna, I'll
one or another of the singers from here, plus one or another friends
another production in Italy or France.
It sounds like a traveling road show!
It is. We're like a circus group. [Laughter]
So the conductor is the lion-tamer?
he's the Ringmaster of the circus! After a time, there's
a friend everywhere you go.
Can you bring someone new into the circle?
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
will have sung together. Then we'll both do that same opera
Chicago next season. So it's a never-ending process of widening
It's what keeps us sane.
Is the audience a friend, or are we eavesdropping on a private
No, they're friends. Sometimes the audience is eavesdropping
on a party, and there are some times that we're having so much fun
that the characters take us over. A wink back and forth will have
off and running and you don't know what might happen. Ultimately,
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!
Is that what helps to keep things bright during the 3rd
and 5th and 8th performances in a run?
That's part of it. You don't have to change it to keep it
but it's nice to challenge yourself by throwing in slightly different
here and there. A lot of us do our recitatives differently every
When you walk out onstage, are you portraying a character,
or do you actually become that character?
become that character. Everything I do on the stage is informed
by Cherubino at that moment. Unless something extraordinary
thoughts are Cherubino's thoughts. But even if I hurt myself or
flies off, I have to think how Cherubino has to deal with it.
to say we're not talking as Susan and Renée and Bryn, but the
choices are definitely Cherubino's.
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
[Laughing] I think it's partly the ease that Renée and
I have with each other. I thought about how much that would
but he's just so smitten. It's like when you have the
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!
This past February , WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago was
format. Bruce Duffie is now taking a bit of a rest while looking
place to share his library and talents. Meanwhile, he continues
interviews to this, and other publications. Next time in these
chat with Donald Palumbo, Chorus Master of Lyric Opera of
for the Verdi issue in December, the noted Romanian baritone Alexandru
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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
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.