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Mentor, Muse, Mother
The Many Roles of Susan Graham
by Claudia Friedlander
Graham performs with the New York Philharmonic conductedWhile the young developing voice offers enviable ease and agility, legendary mezzo-soprano Susan Graham relishes the vocal maturity she now enjoys. “Where I am now, in my mid 50s—there is a richness to the sound,” she observes. “I was known for a silverish clarity when I was younger, which is why I sang so much Mozart and Handel. I had a real sparkle in my voice that, over the years, has burnished into more bronze than silver.”
by Alan Gilbert for the New Year's Eve celebration
"La Vie Parisienne," 2015
She exults in the “big girl” roles she is able to embody now that her voice has taken on greater warmth and depth, including Didon in Les troyens and the title role in Iphigénie en Tauride. “My lower register has come in, there’s more warmth in the lower and middle—and that’s just age. In every aspect of aging, things start to sit lower!” she laughs. “Everything drops a little bit, including the voice! I still have B-flats, don’t get me wrong—sometimes they don’t just pop out the way they once did.”
Graham is also cognizant of the way her interpretive powers have expanded over time. “I enjoy the art of communication more now, because I feel that I have more to say,” she explains. “I’m not just saying what people tell me to say, like I did when I was younger. If I want to interpret something in a particular way, I can usually back it up and make a good case for it. And I think that’s one of the things that’s hard for young singers, especially before they’ve had the opportunity to go out there in front of the world and get the positive feedback that one needs to build confidence and go forward, then ratchet it up a level, then ratchet it up another level—of communication, and expression, and risk taking.”
While artists whose careers attain the stature and longevity that Graham enjoys sometimes scale back on learning roles, she continues to break new ground. Recent role debuts include Clairon in Capriccio and Countess Geschwitz in Lulu. But the role she will perform for the first time this season that holds the greatest personal meaning for her is Mrs. Patrick De Rocher, mother of the convicted murderer, in Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking. As this issue of Classical Singer goes to press, she is making a long-anticipated return to the work at Washington National Opera for the first time since the opera’s premiere in 2000.
Heggie composed the role of Sister Helen Prejean for Graham. “I’ve always wanted to reconnect with the opera,” she explains, “but I’ve always said no because of the place it would inevitably take me to.” It was during the premiere production that Graham’s beloved father passed away. “Every note of the score takes you back there, and that’s why I have never done Sister Helen since then. I can hear just one of Jake’s chords, because he has such a distinct, recognizable style, and I’m back in that place—which is not a happy place. Music has the power to conjure powerful emotional memories.” Graham suddenly furrows her brow, ominously intoning John Williams’ Jaws theme, then laughs, “When you hear that, you have a feeling, you get goose bumps, you suddenly feel fear!”
A devoted friend of Heggie’s, she was always hoping that the right opportunity would present itself to revisit the opera. So when she was asked to look at the role of the mother, “I considered it carefully, steeled myself, and said, ‘Yes—I will do this.’ Then I started looking at it and said, ‘Oh my God, what have I done?!’” It gives her some comfort to know that she has a cover she can count on: “Betsy [Elizabeth] Bishop is a good friend of mine. For her, it’s a different kind of experience because this is her initial contact with this opera. She just texted me asking, ‘How do you get through this part?’ and I said, ‘It’s not this part I’m worried about, it’s the exposure to Sister Helen!’ But I’m going to have a lot of support. Jake will be there on and off, and Betsy will be there. She’s got me covered.”
Baritone Michael Mayes, who to date has portrayed Joseph De Rocher in six other productions of Dead Man Walking, is looking forward to collaborating with Graham at WNO. He agrees that the theme of loss that permeates the show can be painfully affecting. “It opens people up emotionally and causes ripples, waves, in their lives that can’t be ignored,” Mayes says. But it also creates opportunities for healing—a woman once told him that seeing Dead Man Walking changed the way she thought about the man who had killed her daughter.
Graham’s inclination to take on the role of Mrs. De Rocher was buoyed by the fact that her relationship to motherhood has recently changed. Last September she married her longtime love, becoming stepmother to his 10-year-old twins, whom she adores. “I love being a stepmother—these kids are amazing!” she gushes.
Budding singers themselves, the twins perform with the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus and recently appeared in La bohème with LA Opera. “They’ve sung with Dudamel!” she exclaims. “I haven’t sung with Dudamel! I’m hoping that they can hook me up.”
Whether or not they pull that off, being a stepmother has already contributed to Graham’s ever-expanding artistry. “Before, playing the role of a mother in an opera was something I could imagine but I couldn’t really feel in the same way as people who have had children. Now I have a stepson and I can sort of start to peel away at what this mother must be going through.”
Graham may be new to motherhood, but she has long embraced the role of mentor to her younger peers. Tenor Dimitri Pittas, who first worked with Graham as an apprentice with the Santa Fe Opera in 2003, describes her as “an amazing person, actor, and inspiration to singers. She was so kind to all of the apprentice artists, and we learned how to have fun and still perform at a high level—something I feel is frequently unbalanced in the business today.”
Graham believes that a lighthearted approach is essential for the creative process. “I’m the one in the cast who always gets in trouble from the director because I’m always cutting up,” she acknowledges. “But it’s not just being the class clown and getting in trouble and being mischievous, because I realized—even after getting yelled at by Francesca [Zambello], or Tim Albery, or somebody else for acting so stupid all the time—that’s where creativity comes from. That’s where I get my best stuff, from acting like a fool in rehearsals.”
She appreciates that young artists may not feel free to fully let loose, so she doesn’t mind taking some occasional heat for serving as a “bad example.” And it’s only natural that Graham’s mirth sometimes spills over into performances as well. Pittas appeared in a production of Die Fledermaus with her at the Met and recalls that “although our characters are hardly onstage together, she managed to be in the wings watching and making me laugh!”
Graham remains deeply grateful for the help and encouragement she received as a young artist and she herself is a passionate advocate for her junior colleagues. She knows from experience that a little affirmation from an artist you respect can make all the difference. “I remember how when I was a young singer I looked up to the people I was singing with—Tom Hampson, Frederica von Stade, Marilyn Horne, Mirella Freni, José van Dam, Kurt Moll—they were on a pedestal, and if any one of them shot me a look or a wink or a grin or a thumbs up, it boosted me up and gave me confidence.”
She values the respect that she has garnered over her career for the way it empowers her to similarly boost the next generation of singers. Her long affiliation with Santa Fe Opera provides frequent opportunities. “Oh my God, did we have an amazing young cast!” she exclaims about their production of Capriccio last summer. In their first rehearsals, however, “I could see them sort of standing back, kind of afraid to talk to me, and I’m like, ‘Guys, I’m just here, we’re all in this together. I’m just as freaked out as you are by this hard opera that we’ve never done before!’ That’s a funny aspect of the respect for the elder statesman that I never realized: I have to work hard to get into their circle!”
Baritone Craig Verm was one of those young artists. “I was quite excited before last summer knowing that I would be the ‘love interest’ of the one and only Susan Graham in Capriccio,” Verm says. “I think I did a pretty good job playing it cool at the beginning of rehearsals, trying to hide the fact that I was bubbling over with excitement and nervousness inside. But Susan’s easy-going demeanor and her willingness to jump right in and ham it up with little ol’ me quickly put me at ease.”
Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke also expresses deep gratitude for Graham’s generosity. “I first worked with Susan at the Met,” Cooke shares. “She was the lead in Iphigénie while I was just the second maiden on the right or something, yet she remembered me.”
The following summer, Cooke’s husband Kelly Markgraf was singing in Billy Budd at Santa Fe. When she went backstage after the performance, Graham, who was also there to congratulate conductor Edo de Waart, called her over. “She immediately introduced us and said, ‘Edo, you must hear this wonderful young mezzo!’ I sang for him a few days later and we have since collaborated on a number of concert engagements. Susan exemplifies the way I want to be with my own colleagues, if I am ever in a similar position.”
Graham’s position now enables her to be an outspoken advocate for the arts, both within the opera community and in the greater public sphere. “I tend to talk to audiences a lot now, so people think that’s something I was just born with,” Graham remarks. “Well, I’ve always had a big mouth, but I was terrified to talk to audiences!”
In the late 90s, when Graham began to accept recital engagements, her manager encouraged her to speak to her audiences. She was initially aghast at the idea. “I can barely sing in front of a recital audience, much less talk to them! Extemporaneous speech terrified me.” But she began by providing simple introductions to her encores, and as her public speaking gradually became more confident, she was extended invitations to emcee the OPERA NEWS Awards and she now frequently hosts the Metropolitan Opera’s HD broadcasts.
Despite her socially progressive leanings, Graham is proud to have sung for George W. Bush’s second inauguration as well as at a state dinner during his presidency. Recent political events inspired her to revisit Bush’s 2005 inauguration speech, some of which she found so moving that she took notes as she listened. “‘Make the choice to serve in a cause larger than your wants, larger than yourself, and in your days you will add not just to the wealth of our country but to its character,’” Graham quotes to me as we sit in her apartment in New York City. “That sounds like something Thomas Jefferson would say, or John Kennedy.
“Furthermore,” she continues, “‘In America’s ideal of freedom, the public interest depends on private character—on integrity and tolerance toward others and the rule of conscience in our own lives. . . . [American ideals—]sustained in our national life by the truths of Sinai, the Sermon on the Mount, the words of the Koran, and the varied faiths of our people . . . ideals of justice and conduct that are the same yesterday, today, and forever.’”
I ask her opinion regarding the artist’s role today with regard to social and political issues. “There was a time when, as an artist, you were privileged,” she responds. “You had a voice, you stood up in front of people, and you could introduce your songs with a political slant. That was a public voice that not everybody had.”
Social media now affords everyone a platform, and Graham feels that it is up to each individual to be discerning as to how to use it responsibly. “I think that there are times when everybody has a right to speak their mind. I like what I see a lot of my friends doing, which is focusing on moving forward, peacefully promoting what we believe, and living our truth. So live your truth every day,” she says. “Sometimes you’ve got to hit bottom before you can come up, but I am not a gloom-and-doom person.”
Graham comes by this optimism and ability to take a long view through sustained dedication and personal experience. “A lot of people get into this profession for all the right reasons while not understanding that an enormous amount of sacrifice is required,” she muses. “At the time, I didn’t think of it as sacrifice. I just thought of it as putting one foot in front of the other.”
Graham recalls spending a Thanksgiving early in her career flying from San Francisco, where she was currently performing, to New York, for rehearsals for a small role with the Metropolitan Opera—and was then not used at all throughout the weekend’s rehearsals. On her way back to the West Coast, Graham fantasized about writing a book for neophyte singers titled What They Don’t Tell You.
“They don’t tell you that you’re never going to have holidays,” she says. “You’re not going to be able to sleep in your own bed more than 20 or 30 nights a year, maybe . . . if you’re lucky!”
Still, she wouldn’t change a thing. “Yeah, I didn’t get to have Thanksgiving because I was sitting on a plane, but I got to fly to the Metropolitan Opera and be in a room with great singers, with James Levine waving his arms!”
Graham emphasizes how crucial it is that aspiring singers understand the dedication required for a career. “If you’re not willing to give it 100 percent of what you’ve got—in your checkbook, in your heart, in your dedication, in your very soul—then it’s going to eat you up.
“I was 56 before I got married,” she points out. “I never had children. I had relationships along the way, great relationships, but I never had enough left over from music to commit to a marriage until now.”
Yet it is the sheer depth of commitment required for vocal artistry that accounts for Graham’s deep and lifelong passion for singing. “What I would tell young singers is to gratefully and humbly absorb all that is around you,” she concludes. “I understand that there is an impatience, a need to have it all now and get the paycheck and make money. And I understand all that. But this is a profession that requires a lot of time. But, God, does it bring joy!”
Claudia Friedlander is a voice teacher and certified personal trainer with a studio in New York. Find her on the Web at www.claudiafriedlander.com.