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The Year of Singing Safely: Susan Graham’s Operatic Art in 2020

November 30, 2020

Like all of us, Susan Graham is having a weird year. For a self-described people-person, an open-hearted Texan, and a mega-star in a profession that relies upon large gatherings for its bread and butter, the isolation imposed by the pandemic is a dramatic reversal, to say the least. Our recent interview was, of course, done remotely. But even over a phone line, Graham is expressive and generous, forthcoming about the challenges the year has brought and the precarious and unknown future of her industry. “I won’t go into all that’s been canceled,” she says. “A lot of dates. So far three operas, a lot of touring, and a lot of money.” [Laughs.]

Perhaps the most unique disappointment was what would have been the premiere of Richard Danielpour’s A Standing Witness, a 13-part song cycle set to the poetry of Rita Dove, composed for Graham and the Copeland House Ensemble. The work is a chronicle of America from the 1960s to the present day. “America, warts and all,” Graham says, “that’s my subtitle for the piece. We were supposed to tour it all over the country with the world premiere at Tanglewood last summer, culminating in a performance at the Kennedy Center last Wednesday.”

The work is now tentatively rescheduled for next year, with Graham’s other summer engagements still waiting for firmer news about the status of the vaccine, or vaccines as the case may be. “The financial impact will be long lasting,” Graham says. “Productions are going to be smaller, perhaps rehearsal periods will be shorter. That’s my plug for Three Decembers,” she says of the chamber opera she will appear in online this month for Opera San José. “It’s a cast of three, it should become a staple! There aren’t going to be any Les Troyens or giant-scale pieces for a while.”

Three Decembers, composed by Jake Heggie based on a libretto by his frequent collaborator Gene Scheer, will feature Graham in the role of famous actress Madeline Mitchell. The production will be conducted, directed and performed by Opera San José resident artists in a staged version which was filmed in October.

Making opera in the age of COVID-19 is a brave new world. “We couldn’t have an orchestra because that would’ve exceeded the number we were allowed to have in the room,” Graham says, “so we had two pianos. It was a big rehearsal room with Hepa filters and virus scrubbing air circulation. The ventilation system was state of the art, everything was sanitized once in a while and they’d ventilate the room. Everybody had on masks, and everybody not singing had on shields as well as masks and the conductor was behind a Plexiglas wall, five feet wide and seven feet tall. If the glare was just right, we really couldn’t see him very well, nor could he hear us very well. And then the two pianos were side by side, but there was Plexiglas not only between them but between them and the set. We thought the sound would go up and around and be fine, but oddly it almost felt like they were in another room.” Graham, whose numerous recordings include a Grammy winner for best classical vocal album for her Ives recital, found a filming environment with so few takes a challenge. “That is my disclaimer,” she says, laughing again; reviewers take note.

Beyond schedule changes and loss of work, for an artist who has cultivated a high sensitivity to human pathos, even one in good health, as Graham is, the effect of the pandemic has been physical. When the pandemic first hit, Graham says she basically sat on her couch for three months. “It was like my diaphragm had shut down. I couldn’t take enough breath to make any sound. It was like getting punched in the stomach.”

Music was the thing to pull her out of this funk. The recipient of the prestigious Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur, Graham is a singer particularly noted for her association with French repertory, from her album of the songs of Reynaldo Hahn, La Belle Époque, to her interpretation of Didon in Les Troyens at San Francisco Opera, which Joshua Kosman called “a tour de force of vibrant vocalism and searing theatricality.” So it should come as no surprise that in these challenging times Graham turned to French music for comfort. “I began playing Debussy at the piano,” she says. “The prelude, and stuff like that. It was so gentle, it let me breathe again. Then I started doing Carole King songs, Carpenter songs.”

Brian Hymel, with Susan Graham, in <em>Les Troyens</em> (Photo by Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera)

But the real saving grace came via the invitation from Opera San Jose. “Surreal parameters aside,” Graham says, “it was a godsend for me. It sparked me up, it took me out of my quarantine doldrums in which I was quite deeply imbedded. It gave me a purpose.”

Graham describes a couple of days adjustment to the strangeness of being around people again, even with the stringent protocols, before the familiar pleasure of having a rehearsal family returned. “The joy of collaborating with people to tell a story is something I will never take for granted again,” she says.

With almost 200 performances at the Metropolitan Opera, Graham is also renowned worldwide, and has been particularly beloved in the Bay Area since she came to the Merola Opera Program in 1987. Graham’s last performance before the lockdown took place at Cal Performances. Her 30-plus-year career began with acclaim and continued with a steady stream of accolades and triumphs, especially in the operas of Mozart. Her Cherubino is perhaps the most endearing since that of someone she calls “a great friend, mentor, and idol of mine forever,” fellow mezzo, Frederica von Stade.

Graham and FlemingHer Octavian was also particularly celebrated, especially alongside the Marschallin of another longtime friend, soprano Renée Fleming. The two won the Metropolitan Opera National Council auditions the same year, and these days the two blond superstars laugh about being occasionally mistaken for one another by ardent but misinformed fans. Like Fleming, Graham is the kind of operatic celebrity that not only shines brightly within individual productions, but acts as a wave that lifts all boats, enhancing and elevating the entire industry through an undeniable and broad-ranging appeal combined with an almost fierce devotion to the pursuit of musical and artistic excellence.

Some early experiences helped set Graham on the right path dramatically, including being directed by Graham Vick in St. Louis as Erica in Samuel Barber’s Vanessa. “I was 27 years old and the experience was like acting in a film. It didn’t feel like singing. I remember just how organic and real and honest every reaction was. It was one of my first things, and I thought, ‘this is so cool!’ It’s not always easy, in something like Werther, to make that happen, but I always try.”

Working with Jake Heggie was another important turning point toward artistic freedom. “I’ll never forget the first time I met him at a coffee shop on Van Ness [Avenue in San Francisco]. Dead Man Walking had already appeared on my radar and people had been talking about it, so we arranged a meeting and I met Jake there for a cup of coffee. I sat across from him, this boy genius, and in his completely disarming, honest, kind, and unpretentious way he told me passionately the story of this opera and how it was going to unfold.

“He said ‘if you agree to sing Sister Helen, the opera will start with us actually seeing the crime so there’s no doubt about the guilt or innocence of the crime and then the opera continues with a pinpoint spot on your face meeting with him, and then it widens out to a whole scene of you teaching kindergarten and then she goes on this whole journey on death row with this inmate whom she grows to love, in a Sister-Helen way, and follows through his redemption and death,’ and I’m sitting there listening to this whole thing thinking, ‘no, no way. I can’t do it. No thank you!’ I said, ‘this is too hard emotionally. It’s too raw, too real emotionally. I don’t think I can do it.’ And he leaned in, in his Jake way, with those great big eyes, and said, ‘that’s exactly why you have to do it.’ And I knew I was hooked. Sister Helen’s first aria is called “This Journey,” and it was a journey unlike any I’d ever been on.”

Graham credits Dead Man Walking with changing her. “It just opened me up and taught me how to be raw. Every operatic character has vulnerability, otherwise it wouldn’t be an opera, it would be a Reader’s Digest story. But in opera, unless you can tap into the vulnerability, there’s not much story there. That’s also something I learned from Frederica von Stade very early on. She can just look out at the audience without saying a word and it just grabs your heart.”

Certain kinds of artistic freedom, Graham says, can only come “when you have an arsenal of experience under your belt. It’s not there when you’re 25, you have to be 40 or 45. You’ve had a string of experiences that fortify you and have given you the confidence of conviction that, yes, what I have to say here is valid and if a director doesn’t like it, we can talk about it. At this point in my life, I’m not going to say a director won’t tell me I’m wrong but ... they’re likely to collaborate with me and I can sometimes justify my feeling or position. I guess it is a question that after 30-odd years of doing, this I’ve garnered a little bit of respect by just trying to fight the good fight. I try to use my powers for good instead of evil.” [Laughs.]

Graham can also laugh about the vocal changes every singer becomes aware of over time. Revisiting the Hahn songs prior to her Zellerbach recital, Graham says floating high notes used to be a bit like floating a feather, but now she says she can’t decide if it is like trying to float a ping pong ball or maybe a bowling ball. “Anyway, it’s not a feather! [Laughs.] The point being that the silvery quality has become a little more burnished we have a little more bronze in the voice, a little warmer, a little richer I think.”

Susan Graham

Considering which works might most benefit from a certain artistic maturity Graham says Mahler comes to mind. “I’ve never done Kindertotenlieder (Songs of the death of children) because I was afraid to. According to Jake Heggie, that’s exactly why I should do it.” Even familiar pieces can take on a newness as the years go by. “Those pieces I have done over a long period of time have changed with my life experience. The Rückert-Lieder, even Les nuit d’été (Summer nights) which I’ve been singing forever. The perspective on that poetry and the emotional color you can bring in can be more varied. I’m not as afraid to be real, which doesn’t mean I’m going to sit there and bawl on the stage, it’s just a certain kind of vulnerability and openness that you allow and it brings a different color to it.

“I did the Rückert-Lieder recently and a friend of mine in the audience was, let’s say, facing her own mortality, potentially imminently. And I sang “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen”, (I am lost to the world) looking right at her because it was for her. And I didn’t break down. I break down now talking about it, but for me there is beauty in that song. It’s not just a sad song about death. It’s about how I choose to live. Even if I’m departed from you, it doesn’t mean I’m gone. That’s how that song hit me in that moment and I just went with it, and instead of being mournful it was a joyful moment, and she was smiling and her husband was smiling and crying, and I sang it through a kind of uplifted feeling.”

Finding new layers are part of what’s so cool about getting to be older as an artist, Graham says. “There’s so much that comes into it involuntarily you just think of because you’ve lived it.”

Speaking of living, in 2016 Graham took on the role of leading lady at an event where she did not sing, her own wedding. Good friend and fellow-mezzo Sasha Cooke sang Jake Heggie’s “My True Love Hath My Heart” and the happy couple danced their first dance to Etta James’s At Lastsung by none other than Renée Fleming. Prior to their romance, groom Clay Brakeley and Graham had been dear friends for decades.

Now teaching virtually, as well as mentoring young artists for LA Opera, Graham is also gaining the youth-perspective by quarantining with her husband and 14-year-old twin stepchildren at their home in Burbank. “They’re with their mother for two weeks and then with us for two weeks. In the beginning that was kind of tricky but we worked it out. Their mother is part of our pod. Just as it was when we were doing Three Decembers, where we were contractually a pod. The cast and crew contractually could not go out and socialize with anybody else. Anything we did socially was within our pod, and outdoors. They all lived in a tiny apartment complex that has a big driveway where we would bring a TV out and watch the debates or whatever, everybody would bring their own dinner, and we would eat together.”

Raised in Texas from the age of 12 (in the same church as the Bush family) Graham has described living a childhood straight out of “Leave It to Beaver,” and being happily raised by a Dad who “couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket.” But Graham was born in New Mexico, a place that was also her home for many years and where she nurtured an important association with Santa Fe Opera. She visited New Mexico recently, and had the opportunity to share a special song for one appreciative fan.

“My mother is 92,” Graham says, “and this time last year I did concert at her assisted living place. Last year was a whole different world. They all gathered chairs around the piano and I sang right in their faces. Now my mother is not in assisted living. When the pandemic hit my sister pulled her out and took her home, thank goodness. But a friend in Santa Fe asked if I would do her a favor. She’s in financial advising and has a client who has been a volunteer at Santa Fe Opera since it opened in 1957. Burt. He’s 96 now, lost his wife a year ago, and lives by himself in assisted living, with a family in California who can’t come visit. That’s what’s so hard about this time. He has Santa Fe opera posters on his wall that I have autographed.”

Graham stopped by and stood outside his window, also singing over a phone so he would be sure to hear, and gave him a short, impromptu concert. I asked her what the moment meant to her. “It’s the joy of having a gift to give,” she says. “Everyone thinks that giving is so selfless, which of course it is, but we get something out of it too.”

Graham also recorded some Christmas songs at a cathedral in Santa Fe which will be available in December, complete with a pianist and made possible by a masked camera crew. “I invited two friends and they sat 20 feet away and I got to sing for them. Just having people in front of you pouring your heart out for them, the human interaction, there’s nothing to replace that.”

In its own way, perhaps singing for two people in a cathedral, or outside Burt’s window will take their place on a list of cherished musical moments. She and Heggie recently found themselves together rehearsing Three Decembers on the 20th anniversary of Dead Man Walking. The opera has now achieved a rare feat for a contemporary opera, being performed in dozens of productions the world over, and the two friends cried together in amazement looking back at their long association. Maybe someday, when opera houses are full again, she will cry in amazement with colleagues at having survived 2020, saying, “Remember that year everything was canceled?” Although fortunately for fans of Graham and Heggie, not everything has been canceled. Three Decembers will stream on demand Dec. 3 through 31.

One other bonus for Graham from doing this role at this particular moment was an outlet for some not-so-pretty emotions. “My character, she is not the nicest person,” Graham says, “and some of that snarkiness I got to get out of my system was really cathartic.”

Graham and other singers often describe operatic singing as “controlled screaming.” Considering what we’ve been through this year, Graham says, “we all, whether we know it or not, will have a lot of screaming to do.”

Lisa Houston is a feature contributor to Classical Singer magazine and San Francisco Classical Voice, and the founder of SingerSpirit.com, a website for singers.