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An Interview With Susan Graham: The Intimate Singer

November 3, 2009

Texas-born mezzo-soprano Susan Graham is no stranger to these parts. Since 1990, she has sung everything from Monteverdi to Jake Heggie in six different productions with San Francisco Opera, performed several times in concert with the San Francisco Symphony, and sung two recitals here. Most recently, she brought an uncommonly gentle and intimate touch to Mahler’s five Rückert Lieder, recorded in performance for future release in the Symphony’s Mahler series.

Graham is one of the finest mezzos of our era. Blessed with a naturally sensuous instrument and rock-solid technique, she can sing virtually anything convincingly. As she prepared for her lead role in Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, part of Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra’s celebration of the 350th birthday of the composer, Graham chatted by phone about the opera, her experience working with Michael Tilson Thomas, and the arc of her career.

I was just listening to your recording of Dido and Aeneas with Emmanuelle Haim [on Virgin Classics]. What does the role of Dido feel like to you?

The story is, of course, epic. Purcell has distilled it into a glimpse into that world and the life of this queen. She’s a grand character, but she’s also very human. And although she has servants and handmaidens, she’s also a woman who is deeply in love with Aeneas.

What I love so much, in particular, in this setting — you know, I’ve also sung Dido in the huge Berlioz operatic retelling of the story, Les Troyens (The Trojans) — is the intimacy of her expression. Purcell wrote it close to 200 years before Berlioz did, so it’s [in] a completely different musical style, but this [final] aria is her noble resignation to the fact that she has to die because Aeneas has left her and it’s her fate. Noble is a word that keeps coming back to me, because of the way that she expresses this acceptance and this desire. She keeps saying, “Remember me. Remember me.”

Listening to your performance of “When I am laid in earth” is revelatory, because you get, not just the nobility and grandeur, but the intimacy.

That’s one of the things I strive for. For me, it’s a very intimate piece. It’s like a glimpse through a keyhole into another realm.

You know, I’m doing Der Rosenkavalier right now at the Met. I have a performance tomorrow night. That’s where my head is, and it’s kind of hard for me to even talk about Dido at this point. I mean, I’m playing a 17-year-old Viennese count who couldn’t be farther away from Dido. I’m just trying to transport myself into the experiences I’ve had doing it, and, of course, looking forward to these West Coast performances.

Have you performed the role of Dido much?

Not very much at all. I recorded the aria with John Eliot Gardiner many years ago [for the 1995 Tony Palmer movie on Purcell’s life, England My England]. He used my voice and image as an overlay for Purcell’s own funeral music in the film. I had studied the aria in college, because it’s something everyone studies in college. Purcell wrote it for a girls school. It was designed for young voices.

Yet we have Kirsten Flagstad and lots of sopranos in the middle and ends of their careers singing it.

Yes, it’s timeless. And it’s not easy, either. I admire those young schoolgirls who sang the first performance. The role is so exposed. And in order to capture the intimacy that you say you like on my recording requires the technical mastery to effectively scale it down and float those high notes and give it such huge expression, in a pianissimo way. That’s always a challenge. But it’s also part of what I love about it.

Speaking of scaling your voice down, I just heard you perform Mahler in San Francisco. Bottom line, it was wonderful. If you hadn’t been recording, would you have sung that softly? I ask, because Davies Symphony Hall is not the greatest for voices. I’m curious if you would have risked being drowned out if there hadn’t been mikes to record the experience.

I think I probably would have done it pretty similarly, because it was part of an interpretation that MTT and I had developed together, based on what we wanted to show in this music. You know, I am not Maureen Forrester. I’m not Jessye Norman. I am not that kind of stentorian voice. What I bring to a lot of the music that I sing — and my choices have been based on this — is that ability to show that intimacy and show the more tender expression than you might get from another interpreter. Also, by the end of “Um Mitternacht,” unless you’re Birgit Nilsson, you hardly can be heard over all that brass. [Laughing]

It’s interesting that you bring this up, because I actually vacillated about that very issue. At times, I was afraid that it wasn’t what people were expecting. But you can’t always go with what people are expecting. Sometimes you just have to follow your own gut. It will be interesting to see how it affects you when you’re just listening to the recording, and not fighting with the acoustic of Davies and volume issues.

How did you and MTT work on that interpretation?

Funny you ask. We worked for five or six days before the concert and recording started. But a year and a half ago, when we found ourselves in Santa Fe at the same time (I have a home there, and he spends parts of his summers in Santa Fe), we spent a day going through the music and analyzing what it means to each of us. We went so far as to dissect the punctuation in the pieces.

Is it unusual to work with a conductor in that way?

Yes, on that level of detail. I found it fascinating. I love digging into text and subtext and different ways of expressing an idea, and expressing several ideas at once with one note or one phrase. But in the days that followed, I recounted to myself, with a certain amount of amusement, that we spent 20 minutes on a comma. Which was fascinating.

Besides the forthcoming recording of the Rückert Lieder, do you have more recordings in the pipeline?

Malcolm Martineau and I are working on a project that might include some Mahler with piano. It remains to be seen when we can schedule it. That’s the hardest part, you know.

One of my big thrills was attending a master class, years back, with soprano Elly Ameling at the old San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

I did one with her, years back. I learned daring of expression, and integrity and truth of expression. That’s what I teach in my master classes, which I give infrequently.

It’s my goal, too, to give young singers permission to say something. A lot of our training today, unfortunately, is sheerly technical. That’s wonderful, and we have to have that, of course. It’s imperative. But I think that a lot of time, there’s a lost emphasis on actually having the courage of your convictions to let the music mean something to you, and then express that.

Jason Victor Serinus regularly reviews music and audio for Stereophile, SFCV, Classical Voice North America, AudioStream, American Record Guide, and other publications. The whistling voice of Woodstock in She’s a Good Skate, Charlie Brown, the longtime Oakland resident now resides in Port Townsend, Washington.