Feature Article

A Talk with Mezzo-Soprano Susan Graham

July, 2003

Jason Serinus


Now at the peak of her powers, 6 ft. tall, 42-year old American lyric mezzo Susan Graham is prized for her luxuriant, smooth sound and heartfelt delivery. In high demand to sing the trouser role of Octavian in Richard Straussí Der Rosenkavalier (an opera in which she is often paired with the Marschallin of her friend Renťe Fleming), Graham has proven herself an exceptional interpreter of the French repertoire.

Graham recently debuted with Houston Grand Opera in the title role of Handelís Ariodante. Other recent performances have included LehŠrís The Merry Widow, Berliozís La Damnation de Faust and Les Nuits díťtť, Mozartís Mass in C Minor, and Mendelssohnís A Midsummer Nightís Dream. Grahamís summer 2003 Sante Fe Opera performances of Offenbachís La Belle HťlŤne are scheduled for June 27-August 23.

In September 2001, Susan Graham celebrated the tenth anniversary of her Metropolitan Opera debut with performances of Mozartís Idomeneo opposite Placido Domingo, conducted by James Levine. In the spring of 2002, she presented recitals in Paris, Berlin, London, Lisbon, and Amsterdam. This spring took Graham and her superb accompanist Malcolm Martineau to a host of American cities. Ample biographical information, including a personal diary, may be accessed at  http://www.susangraham.com.

I caught up with Susan Graham on April 5, 2003, the day before she presented a solo recital in San Franciscoís Davies Symphony Hall. We spent almost 45 minutes in face-to-face conversation, concluding just as her recital rehearsal was set to begin.

Grahamís recital program began with Zigeunerlieder, Op. 103 by Brahms, Proses Lyriques by Debussy, Seven Early Songs by Berg, and Quatres poŤmes de Guillaume Apollinaire by Poulenc, It ended with three selections from French operetta contained on her recent Gramophone and Opera News Editorís Choice disc: J'ai deux amants from L'amour masquť and Vois-tu, je m'en veux from Les p'tites Michu by Messager and C'est Áa la vie, c'est Áa l'amour from Toi c'est moi by Simons. The recital was greeted by cheers and demands for three encores: ďņ ChlorisĒ by Hahn, ďFantochesĒ from Debussyís Fetes Galantes, and ďSexy Lady,Ē a hilarious number penned especially for her by Ben Moore. The program was repeated and recorded at Grahamís April 14 Carnegie Hall recital debut, and is scheduled for fall release by Warner Classics. If it is included on the disc, ďSexy LadyĒ is sure to become for Graham what the ďSillsianaĒ spoof on coloratura heroines became for Beverly Sills.-

Jason Victor Serinus: Youíve got a new look.

Susan Graham: Have I? Oh I do, I have new hair (laughing).

JVS: Youíre in the midst of a recital tour, which includes performances in Washington, D.C., Ann Arbor, Quebec City, Bloomington, San Francisco, Chicago, Princeton and your Carnegie Hall recital debut. Youíre also performing Shťhťrezade with the Atlanta Symphony May 1-3. I last heard you performing Chaussonís Poeme de líAmour et la Mer with the San Francisco Symphony. Alas, I missed your San Francisco performances in the world premiere of Dead Man Walking because my ticket was for night after your father had just died and you returned home for the funeral. But a friend of mine caught your final performance, after your return, and started crying as soon as the curtain went up. I really regret that Iíve only heard you sing the role of Sister Helen Prejean on disc.

As you may know, Iím a whistler who performed Pucciniís O mio babbino caro as ďThe Voice of WoodstockĒ in an Emmy-nominated Peanuts cartoon. I read in an interview you conducted last year that you were whistling Gershwin at the time you received the phone call that your father had died. Do you tend to whistle much?

SG: Oh yeah. My father whistled all the time, my brother whistles all the time, I whistle all the time.

JVS: What do you whistle?

SG: Whatever happens to come into my head. Whatever Iím working on, whatever Iím singing. Gershwin . . . .

JVS: Have you run into other opera singers who whistle?

SG: I donít really notice, but I guess they do. Weíre musical beings, and music sort of comes out in any way it, whether itís humming or whistling or snapping your fingers or tapping your toes (laughing).

JVS: Iíve read that Pavarotti and Regine Crespin whistle.

SG: A lot of people learn their music by whistling because it doesnít take any vocal effort. It saves on the vocal apparatus, but it still puts a musical pattern into your head.

JVS: Youíre now 42. Most people, especially CD-buyers, first became acquainted with your artistry while you were in your mid-30s. By contrast, some singers, such as Cecilia Bartoli, became known in their early 20s. For you, it took longer. Does that have to do with the development of your voice, and how long it took for the sound to open up?

SG: Partly. But it also has to do with the fact that Cecilia was, especially for Americans, very exotic. She was very embraced for being a rare hothouse orchid from the get-go. She was very unusual and she had this facility. She could do these amazing things with her voice Ė I call it doing back flips on the high wire Ė that people would stand in awe of. That was immediate and sudden Ė New Girl on the Scene: Cecilia Bartoli. She was Italian, and exotic, charming, lovely, and wonderful.

But for somebody like me, Americans arenít as interested in somebody whoís just like the person they grew up next door to. Thatís what Iíve always been, kind of the girl next door. I had a very normal upbringing, a ďLeave it to BeaverĒ background. I grew up in New Mexico and Texas, went to college and conservatory, and just came up slowly. I found my strengths and have capitalized on them and built them in the best way I know how to do. But thatís not headline material.

Iím not a 12-year old British soprano whoís going to capture the hearts and imaginations of record buyers worldwide. Iím not Andrea Bocelli. I donít have some hook. Iím just me.

JVS: Just you with this gorgeous, gorgeous voice. At your Berkeley recital debut two years ago, I sat in the first row, right in front of you. What I experienced the most was how open your heart is. Thatís what I hear when I hear you sing.

SG: For me, thatís the only way to do it. Iím not interested in standing up there and creating any kind of illusion. Iím not interested in artifice. In fact, it repulses me. When I feel like someoneís trying to create some kind of artificial environment or impression or sound with their ďgorgeous voice,Ē Iím instantly turned off. Because of that reaction, I canít do it myself. Rather, I experience every word that I sing as if itís me telling a story because it is me telling a story.

JVS: Are there roles you turn down because you donít want to tell the story?

SG: There are roles Iíve turned down which many people have said I can sing, not because I donít want to tell the story, but because the story isnít me.

People will say, ďIs every actor who plays Hamlet Hamlet? Are you Sister Helen?Ē No. But the temperament of a character has to match mine.

People have asked me to sing Mťlisande. I probably wonít. For me, Mťlisande is a beautiful, beautiful role, but the temperament is all wrong for me. Mťlisande is more of a passive, ethereal character.

JVS: Sheís an ephemeral creature you canít put your finger on or touch.

SG: Yes, and as you know, thatís not me. Iím really more drawn to proactive characters who either have their feet on the ground or think they do, or who have a goal and will do something to make it happen. Every single role Iíve sung has that kind of power invested in the character. And thatís important to me. Thatís just what turns me on.

Some people are more attracted to, as you say, more ephemeral characters that are much more illusive. Thatís the great mystery and challenge for a lot of people. For me, my interests go in another direction.

JVS: I discovered you through your La Belle …poque recording of the songs of Reynaldo Hahn. I kept reading that Hahn wrote these lovely, sweet . . . .

SG: Kind of saccharine, ya ya ya . . . .

JVS: Inconsequential songs that are not really ďart.Ē And then I put on your recording, and discovered that what they need is someone who can find the heart that is central to their interpretation.

Are they any singers of the past or present who have served as role models for you?

SG: Frederica von Stade sings the same way. She never sang a note that wasnít true. Never a note or a word came out of her mouth that wasnít heartfelt. I think Christa Ludwig is the same way. They are two of my great role models.

Once I started performing, I got quite acquainted with the art of Tatiana Troyanos, another artist from whom I learned 100% commitment. Every time she opened her mouth, at least when I was around, she provided such a lesson is commitment. If you donít go 100%, donít set your foot outside the door.

JVS: Thereís an interview with soprano Karita Mattila in Gramophone where she says that she would sing the role of the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier if you would sing Octavian.

SG: Iíve heard about the interview but I havenít seen it. I was very touched and very flattered. Iíve wanted to sing Rosenkavalier with her for years. Nothing has materialized so far, but the interview is so recent. It might make it happen.

JVS: When I listen to you sing Rorem songs, thereís a profundity and beauty to them.

SG: Thatís the sheer simplicity. Itís not overdressing it, itís not flowering it up. Itís singing exactly what the composer wrote. If thereís any overlay at all, itís singing about what a summer day means to me, or a daisy, or a little boy climbing a tree Ė just imagining that and seeing it; then what comes out is what comes out. I donít try to over color the words or over shape a phrase.

Thatís one reason that French music suits me so well: itís not generally over flowered. It has a certain kind of restraint.

The French have a way of never presenting something in an overblown way. They arenít given to the same kind of overwrought emotion that we sometimes associated with the Italian or other Latin cultures. The French have a certain sophisticated, almost reticence about how much they will say and how far they will go in the emotional arena. That is what I relate to.

I was raised in the southwest. You donít share your hand all the time, you donít spill all your guts all the time. Thatís why Iím kind of an anomaly in my family, because Iím paid to spill my guts onstage. But I still keep a little bit of reserve. Thatís I think what makes the balance in the very emotional world of music and poetry Ė not going too far with it, which is what the honesty is all about. You have to dare to go far enough, but you also have to have the courage to not go too far.

JVS: I just attended Elly Amelingís Master Class at the San Francisco Conservatory.

SG: Mmm (expressing excitement).

JVS: Youíre almost quoting her. She explained to one of the singers that thereís a difference between French sadness and German sadness.

SG: Ja.

JVS: She encouraged her to look at the paintings of the period.

SG: Exactly . . . .

JVS: Öto look at the paintings of the fŤtes galantes, and the social milieu, discover what people wore and how they stood, and incorporate that knowledge into her interpretation. It was clear to me that some of these students didnít even understand what the words to the songs meant.

SG: Oy yoy yoy.

JVS: From what you say about interpretation, I shall assume that youíre not in the Schwarzkopf camp of over-mannered production. But who are your favorite older singers?

SG: Janet Baker. If we go back farther, and talk about opera as well as art song, for a certain kind of energy and articulation I listen to Conchita Supervia; for French music, to Ninon Vallin.

It always strikes me how different the voice qualities were in the Ď30s and Ď40s. The training and demands on them were completely different. When Ninon Vallin recorded Charlotte in Massenetís Werther  (Naxos) -- [Graham imitates Vallinís thin, squeaky little girl tone as she sings ďVa! Laisse couler mes larmes; Elles font du bien, ma cherieĒ (Go! Let my tears fall; they do me good, my dear)] -- she was the paramount, the apex, the standard by which all others were judged.

But you canít sing like that nowadays. First of all, the demands on us are much greater. You have to sing in much huger venues, we have to be much more versatile. Especially as Americans, we have to be able to do everything.

JVS: Is that because you have to prove yourself to European audiences?

SG: Partially. Also, we donít have a native musical vernacular, at least not enough to sustain a career. Italian singers can go through their lives singing Italian music only; German singers can do the same. You donít hear very many Italians singing Wagner, and you donít hear many French people singing German music, because they can focus on their own cultural heritage. Christine Schšfer, who is a wonderful lieder singer, came to Carnegie Hall and did an all-German evening. Do you think I could go to Berlin and sing an all-American evening of song?

JVS: Rorem, Foster, Copland, Bernstein, Del Tredici, Hoiby, and so many others . . . .

SG: I did sing half-French and half-American. But to do an all-American evening wouldnít fly. Germans, French, and Italians can do that anywhere in the world, but we Americans have to be able to do everything. 

JVS: You mention Supervia. I recently reviewed her 1934 appearance in the film Evensong (Bel Canto). Sheís incredible. Sheís like an operatic Carmen Miranda, batting her eyelashes and fanning herself while singing with that incredible vibrato and amazing sound. But she takes all kinds of liberties, teasing the words out, slowing down and speeding up. When you listen to Elisabeth Schumann and Lotte Lehmann sing the music they were famous for, they did a lot of the same. People donít tend to do that as much nowadays.

SG: Well, it depends on what it is. Every interpreter is allowed a certain kind of license. Certainly the living composers Iíve worked with have no problem stretching a phrase, and I donít think the dead composers would mind too much either. Youíll see in my recital there are moments when you can play with something a little bit; if it requires an extra caress, itís okay.

JVS: Have you sung much Schubert?

SG: No. I donít like it (laughing). Itís heresy that Schubert has never appealed to me. I donít know, I think itís a little square, a little too foursquare for me.

JVS: What do you mean by ďfoursquare?Ē

SG: Look, I started out as a pianist. I recently realized that a lot of my love of French vocal music is because I used to play a lot of Debussy piano music. I loved the roundness, the round shapes and the unexpected harmonies that would come in, the more impressionistic flavors, even in something that would seem as uncomplicated as the little Arabesque [singing arpeggios up and down the scale in imitation]. It seems almost neo-classical in its Bach-like structure, but for me it has a fluidity that I donít find as much as Schubert.

As far as German song goes, I love Mahler and Strauss. And Schumann Iíve done some; I like it when I see that that the music is more linear and pianistically composed.

I think my introduction to Schubert songs was as an accompanist, and I didnít like his sort of accompaniments. Except for ErlkŲnig, the ones I encountered were static, chordal ones that didnít really flow for me [whispering with conspiratorial laughter]. Plus, anything thatís got more than six verses I just canít be bothered with [cracking up].

JVS: You mention Mahler. In March 2003 I interviewed Matthias Goerne, shortly before he was scheduled to sing eight songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn in Boston.

SG: I sang my first Des Knaben Wunderhorn with him in Berlin years and years ago when he was completely unknown. He was a last minute substitute for someone who had taken ill. This must have been in 1992 or 1993, a long time ago. He was a young student of Fischer-Dieskau, thatís all anybody knew about him.

JVS: Schwarzkopf also taught him. Fischer-Dieskau didnít really teach him how to sing; rather he taught him how to project himself in front of an audience so that he would connect with them through song.

SG: I wonder how someone would teach that. Iíll have to ask him.

JVS: He said he had three different ranges. He sounded like a tenor on top, then a baritone, then a bass, and the voices werenít homogenized. Schwarzkopf literally took his voice apart and put it back together again as a whole.

SG: What a brave soul to go through that with somebody like her [laughing].

JVS: I asked him if he communicated much with either of them, and he said something like ďThey are both difficult people. Theyíre not the kind of people you become friends with.Ē

SG: How diplomatic.

JVS: Was your voice of a piece when you first started?

SG: I always had very wonderful teachers who allowed me to sing with my own voice. I never had major technical problems. I always had a very natural technique and an approach to singing that was without artifice (as much as an unnatural act like singing can be without artifice). But when I came to the teacher I still study with, Marlena Malas, I did have sort of two different voices that needed to be blended a little bit. I always had this funny little upward extension Ė my freaky high notes [laughing] Ė and at first they didnít integrate with everything else. Hopefully now they do.

JVS: They most certainly do. How long did that process take, and what did you have to do?

SG: Basically it was about balance. Itís all about a balance of weight and working through the passagio in a healthy way. The shift came through lots of vocalizing and exercises my teacher did with me. Sheís not one to say, ďOkay, if you raise your soft palette an eighth of an inch and then lower the larynxĒ Ė sheís not one of those. Itís all organic, and it comes through feeling and sensation and sound. Hers are the ears that I trust.

JVS: When I was in high school, I encountered a Life magazine interview between Marilyn Horne and Joan Sutherland in which Sutherland said something like ďWhen I sing higher and higher in my range, I imagine concentric circles, one atop the other, getting smaller and smaller.Ē And then Horne interjected something like, ďOh, Joanie, you see circles? I see triangles.Ē (I may have who said what confused).

Do you visualize anything like that, or are you just thinking of the words and the sounds?

SG: Oh no, I see shapes. There are certain phrases in my recital program that definitely have peaks and valleys. I have a couple of really high pianissimo attacks, like on a high A Ė thatís a real visualization.

Singing is largely about visualization because we donít have a hands-on instrument. We canít take it apart and practice fingerings or hand position on a keyboard. Itís all about images, and images are just as individual as the person who needs to employ them. Everyone has their own little visionary language. Itís fascinating really. Itís part of the challenge of teaching.

JVS: When you go up to that pianissimo high A, what do you imagine?

SG: It has to do with vowel shapes. If youíre singing an ďahĒ on a pianissimo note that has to be very tiny and floaty way up there, an ďahĒ will give you too much space, and the tongue is in the wrong position to allow just the little tiny bit of air to come out which is required for a pianissimo note. Your intake of air has to be a certain way, and the outgo has to be a certain way, through a tiny little hole. So I take in the air as though Iím sipping through a straw. Then, when I say the word, even though Iím saying ďah,Ē Iím thinking ďoooĒ to make the hole smaller.

JVS: I donít have to do that with whistling, even though I do often think the words.

SG: Years and years ago, there was a vocal institute that yearly brought voice teachers from around the country to a conference. It was in the days of the laryngiscope or some kind of new MRI imaging technique. They would show a person whistling. The vocal cords react exactly the same as if youíre singing. The chords actually elongate and contract the same way as if youíre singing the pitch.

JVS: Letís talk about Ravelís Shťhťrazade, which youíre singing in Atlanta.

SG: Shťhťrazade is a magical piece. Itís the first time Iíve ever done it. Iíll be singing it with Donald Runnicles and the Atlanta Symphony. Itís so evocative. Talk about images, talk about envisioning exotic locations and witnessing exotic events and sinking your teeth into something youíve only ever dreamed about. Thatís the whole world of Shťhťrazade.

I got a great new dress. I designed it myself with my dressmaker.

JVS: Soprano Karita Mattila supposedly designs her own gowns.

SG: Yes, she does. Iím not quite as adventurous as Karita is with her gowns [laughing]. I love to wear clothes that reflect the piece, especially in orchestral concerts, not to the point of costuming, but evocative of the mood of the piece. The gown is pretty special; itís pretty sassy.

I work with my designer to come up with designs that seems to be what a piece calls for. And this music is just sex on a stick. It is so sexy. The colors and the textures of the music are just like an opium den. Itís fantastic. The text feels like butter and smoke coming out of your mouth. Itís amazing.

JVS: What recordings have you listened to that youíd recommend?

SG: While thereís a famous recording by Rťgine Crespin, Iíve listened to Suzanne Danco because she was taught by the woman for whom Ravel wrote Shťhťrazade. Danco is very much a stickler for the right tempo, because this music is all about subtle changes of tempo and relative tempos in different sections. Ravel was very particular about tempo relationships. Many people tend to wallow a bit [laughing], so itís important to sing the music how it was intended.

JVS: Speaking of recordings . . . .

SG: I just recorded Dido and Aeneas which EMI is issuing this fall. And Warner Classics is recording the Carnegie Hall recital.

JVS: So even though Warner cancelled your contract, youíre still with them?

SG: I guess I am (laughing). Who knew?

The days of exclusive contracts for most of us are over. Itís not the same recording world. Most things happen on a project-by-project basis. Warner has undergone so many changes that those of us who started out with Erato or Teldec have been sort of jumbled around, tossed and turned, thrown out, invited back inÖ The company is being restructured all the time; nobody knows whatís happening most of the time.

JVS: From a sonic perspective, they make wonderful recordings.

SG: I know. The Dead Man Walking recording is one of the most phenomenal live recordings Iíve ever heard of an opera. Itís really good sound. I pray they can bring the same clarity to the Carnegie Hall recording.

JVS: I read an interview with you where you addressed why people call classical music elitist. The reality is that more and more of the newspapers I write for say that classical music is for old people, that it doesnít have relevance.

SG: Thatís a 30-minute diatribe. I canít comment on it in the two minutes we have left. Itís a matter of education, itís a matter of priority, itís a matter of the demise of our culture. Itís the same reason that people donít want to see art, they donít care about poetry, and they donít care about literature. Itís MTV and 30-second attention spans. If the parents and the educators donít hold it as a priority, you canít expect the kids to, and the kids are the future of it. The people who say classical music is dying are quite right, because thereís no one to keep it alive. We do everything we can, but we canít go into peopleís homes and make them give their children piano lessons and learn Beethoven and Mozart. That was the basis of my formative musical education.

JVS: I was weaned on Ď78s of Caruso, Galli-Curci and Tetrazzini. I broke the records when I was two.

SG: Ja [laughing]. I donít have any solution.

I was just at Indiana University where I sang a concert there two nights ago. Itís the countryís largest music school  with 4000 music students, yet there were maybe 500 people at my concert. And they havenít had a professional recitalist since Kathleen Battle sang there in 1997.

When I asked why they the attendance was so low, they said, ďWe do so many recitals here on campus that we donít have an audience for professionals who come in.Ē

I said, ďHow do you expect your students to know whatís going on in the real world if you donít have professionals coming in? Youíre not exactly in New York City; youíre in Bloomington, Indiana.

JVS: I thought the same when thing when I realized that some of the students at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music didnít seem to know what they were singing about, let alone how to give it an original interpretation.

SG: There are exceptions, the very devoted ones God Bless them. As for the rest, I blame the faculty because, as you know, the fish stinks from the head. If the administration and the faculty are not encouraging every one of their students to want to come to a recital like mine, not even to mention making it required attendance, but to create the kind of atmosphere that make them excited about wanting to see Susan Graham who is, letís face it, not a complete unknown, there is a major problem. Iím out there doing it on concert stages and opera stages all over the world. Iím doing what the students are presumably aspiring to do. Youíd think they would want to come and see what I do and how I do it.

JVS:  What theyíd discover is that thereís a gift here. I donít think a lot of them are in touch with the gift. Listening to these five students, it sounded as though they had spent years perfecting their sound without learning what to do with it.

SG: Thatís unfortunately very true. I canít fix how they sing, because Iím not interested in teaching technique. If I can make any difference with young singers, and I hope that I can Ė Iím just starting to get my feet wet with master classes Ė I want to make an impression on how they think with their head and their heart about music, and what it is that they want to say with music.


- Jason Serinus -

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