Friday, June 12, 2009

Opera Diva Susan Graham


Deborah Voorhees


NEW YORK - She's a lady who really knows how to wear a pair of trousers. In fact, pants have made mezzo-soprano and Texan Susan Graham famous. Her lanky frame and confident stride give her the physical presence needed to play the teenage boys in opera's "trouser" roles, such as the love-addicted Cherubino in Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro and the feisty, gender-bending Octavian in Richard Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier.

"I've watched five nephews grow up, " says the 39-year-old Ms. Graham. "They've made great character studies." She has to watch how she stands, holds her hands and throws her head. "There are a lot of subtle gestures that women do that men just don't."

Off stage, though, she's hardly masculine. Her mannerisms are quite feminine, but her imposing figure, which is pushing 6 feet, makes her perfect for these parts. Yes, she has also played luscious, sexy ladies; it's just that trouser roles have become her calling card of sorts.

"I've had roles where I've had to sword fight, hang from a balcony, climb ladders, scale walls - all while singing, " she says. "Not to mention that my chest and ribs were bound by Lycra to hide my breasts."

In the last decade, Ms. Graham has made herself at home in the world's great opera houses: The Royal Opera House Covent Garden in London, the Palais Garnier in Paris, La Scala in Milan, Italy, and The Metropolitan Opera in New York. "Susan has become one of the leading mezzo-sopranos of our time, " says Ned Rorem, a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer.

"She has a wonderful voice, good diction as well as being a beautiful woman." When a role calls for a mezzo (a voice midway between soprano and contralto ranges), "Susan is on the short list of those being contemplated, " says baritone Thomas Hampson, a longtime friend. "She's certainly opera's premiere Octavian. (For some roles) she may get bumped off because she's too tall or too this or that. But typecasting is a problem we all face at times."

Her recording career has begun to take off as well. A two-CD set of Handel's opera, Alcina, with Renee Fleming and Natalie Dessay, has made it to the top five on the Billboard classical chart. No doubt having the famous Ms. Fleming in the title role propels this one forward. But critics have overwhelmingly praised Ms. Graham's breathtaking "La Belle Epoque: The Songs of Reynaldo Hahn" and her "Songs of Ned Rorem" CDs. The latter marks her solo debut on the Erato record label.

The opera stage and recording studios are far from her days in Midland, Texas, where she was always climbing to the top of the willow tree or pestering her sister, Janet, or trying to play ball with her brother, Alan. She grew up a tomboy in a family that hadn't heard much about opera. Her first exposure to the genre was probably channel surfing past a TV show such as Ed Sullivan or Lawrence Welk.

"I don't remember it leaving much of an impression. Midland isn't exactly opera's epicenter, " she says matter-of-factly. Still her home had music in it. Her mother, Betty Graham, saw to it that she and her sister learned to play the piano. Susan would play and sing along to popular tunes such as "MacArthur Park" and "Moon River." She also loved to spin records and belt out the pop tunes.

"Paul Simon was my first voice teacher, " she recalls while lounging in a cafe on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where she lives. As a child, she sang in her church and school choirs and later in musicals at her high school, but during this time she never dreamed she'd star in the operas of Mozart, Handel, Massenet, Strauss - among others. But there were telling moments.

"One day, when Susan was 8 or 9, she was singing around the house and she let out this loud trill, " her mother says. "And I thought, "My, she has a big voice.' " In elementary school, she told her choir teacher she didn't want to sing soprano (the range girls covet because it's most often the lead). She preferred alto.

"I didn't want to just sing the melody, " she says. " I wanted to sing harmony. The melody can get boring." This desire made her a perfect fit for a mezzo. " My voice type doesn't give to the major roles because I'm not a soprano or tenor, " she says. "I play mostly secondary roles. My recitals aren't filled with the big crescendos and flashy arias (that sopranos are noted for). Mine is finessed singing - not blow your hair back."

When Ms. Graham decided on her life's work, she had only seen one opera, Cosi fan tutte. She was studying music at Texas Tech University, where she received her bachelor's and master's degrees (the latter in music and vocal performance). At first, she worried because her voice matured late.

"That's common for my voice type, but at the time we didn't know if I was a mezzo or a soprano, " she says. "I worried that I wasn't as good as the young soprano singers whose voices matured at age 20."

By age 25, it became clear that her fears were unfounded. It was 1985, and she packed her belongings and headed for New York, where she was accepted by the Manhattan School of Music. Here she received a second master's degree in opera performance.

"If I was going to be a singer there was no place else to go, " she says. Her big break into opera came in 1988 when on a whim she showed up at a cattle-call-style audition for The Metropolitan Opera. Her hope was to make it to the finals. She never considered she might get hired.

Contestants were to prepare five arias - one in English, one in Italian, one in French, one in German and the fifth was to be in the language of the singer's choice. The first stage was an elimination round where she competed against thousands. As she kept progressing to the next level, she'd run outside to a pay telephone and scream, "I won, I won" to her voice teacher. "She never seemed surprised, " Ms. Graham says, still sounding a bit amazed by her instructor's reaction. Ms. Graham won round after round, until she found herself standing among many of today's opera stars including Renee Fleming. This is where their longtime friendship began.

During the winners' concert, "Renee and I both wore big hair and royal blue dresses, " she says. Ms. Graham was in chiffon and Ms. Fleming in blue sequins. "I remember standing on stage awe-struck, " says Ms. Graham of her debut on the Met stage. "It was so big it looked like the whole state of Texas. Now I'm more used to it; it's like my back yard."

The first time she played a major role with the opera was in 1992. She was the understudy for Cherubino (played by Frederica von Stade) in The Marriage of Figaro. "I knew a week ahead of time that I would have to go on so I called all my family, " she says. They, of course, came.

Still sounding flushed with excitement at the mere prospect of performing, she rattles off all her worries at the time: "I was so scared. I had to jump through a window. I was afraid my legs would get caught and I'd fall. I had to learn how to fence and I had to practice the part. Understudies don't get much time for that. Oh, and I had to remember, I can't run across the stage like a girl!"

Grace under fire is something Ms. Graham handles well. During a performance of Monteverdi's "The Return of Ulysses" in San Francisco she played the goddess Minerva. In Act II when she's to fly the character Telemachus in on her chariot, it got stuck in the middle of the stage. It wouldn't lower to let Telemachus out and it wouldn't fly off stage. The actor jumped but Ms. Graham was left suspended in air in the middle of a scene she wasn't supposed to be in.

"I knew I had to figure a way for it to look like I belonged there, so I decided to act like a puppeteer. I pointed my staff at the performers below and then I pointed to where I knew they'd be going next. It looked like I was making them move."

In another opera in Nice, France, she lost her voice while performing Cherubino. "It went totally dead, " she recalls. "We didn't have an understudy to take my place. By the forth act all I could do was whistle."

In Act II, Ms. Graham was to belt out the bring-the-house-down aria, "Voi che sapete, " but her voice was just a croak by the song's end. Making matters worse, the actress playing opposite her was to exclaim at the end of her solo performance that she had no idea the character could sing so beautifully. Ms. Graham prayed the woman would skip those words but to no avail.

"She was laughing so hard she could barely sing the lines. I wanted the world to open up and swallow me, " she says.

These days her laryngitis is long gone. She's in the middle of a 12-city recital tour, which includes Barcelona, Paris, London, Vienna, Toronto, England and New York.

On a recent rainy day, Ms. Graham walked onto the stage at Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall to rehearse for her New York recital. Her pianist Malcolm Martineau had already begun warming the keys. Her presence filled the stage. It's not that irrepressible ego that brings on diva temper tantrums. She charms with her beguiling smile and a playfulness that makes it clear that Ms. Graham is still that hometown girl from Midland. As her mother so aptly expresses "IT, " "She may be a diva but she doesn't act like one." "Susan keeps people guessing, " Mr. Hampson says. "She's very elegant but she also likes to Rollerblade in Central Park. . . . If you're Susan's friend you know trees, seasons change but that will remain constant."

The day before her concert at the Metropolitan Opera, Ms. Graham is all in black on that rainy day - leather jacket, boots, sweater - except for her faded blue jeans. She was wearing little makeup and a pair of dangle earrings. Her look is closer to pop rock singer than opera but her voice is all opera - rich, velvety chocolate. Early on, she cleared her voice every few notes. Even cold, it carried easily through the hall. She helds her head down as if she was mentally going over the words and notes she was singing.

"It feels like 7 a.m., " she says. The time was really 10 a.m. She leaned on the piano and didn't stray far. "At each recital I gradually drift away from the piano. It's my security blanket, " she confesses. As her voice warmed, it gained strength and she moved more freely with the music. Between songs she cuts up with her pianist. They have the rapport of longtime friends. "That one sounds like snow coming off a mountain, " she says jokingly, referring to the note she just sang. Mr. Martineau chuckled at what is clearly an inside joke. Bringing the others in the room in on it, she explained that a woman attending one of her concerts told her that a note she sang sounded like a far off snow-covered mountain. " At least she didn't say it sounded like a train wreck, " she quips. Later, she stopped in mid-song and laughed at herself. "I sound like Barbra Streisand, " she says. She tried again, pulling deeper from her diaphragm. This time there was no mistaking the musical genre.

Tomorrow, she'll look every bit the diva in her violet dress, which will fall slightly off her shoulders and V in the back. The violet will be just the color of Elizabeth Taylor's eyes. Her full skirt with sequins around the hem will swish as she crosses the stage. Her voice will have the sound of a decadent cream as she performs works of several composers including Ned Rorem. Half the recital she will sing in English and half in French. The crowd will give her several standing ovations, each time begging for just a little more cream. She will finally signal to the pleading listeners that there will be no more encores as she leaves the stage with her roses that lay across the black grand piano.

From here she will rest for a few days in New York before leaving on the European portion of her tour. When she first started traveling to new countries, she used to get a stomach ache from nerves. "The first time I was singing in a German-speaking country, I stood in the aisle of the grocery store and cried, " she says. " I couldn't tell laundry soap from dish washing soap, bleach from softener. Nothing was familiar." Each new country had moments of trial by fire. "You don't know their ways - when to and when not to bag your groceries, who to and who not to look at in the eye, who to tip and who you will insult if you try to tip them, " she says.

Still the journey has brought her pinch-me moments, such as the first time she saw the Eiffel Tower. The sight of it made her cry. "It just hit me, the realization that I was little Suzy from Texas in Paris, France, - not as a tourist - but to sing a French opera in their own language. I thought I could never have dreamed this."

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