Return to New Mexico: An Interview with Susan Graham

[The following interview took place in conjunction with Susan Graham’s participation in New Mexico’s Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival .]

Wm:  This summer and for several months afterwards, you will be concentrating on concerts and presentations of song cycles at festivals, rather than operatic performances. Do you find it rejuvenating to spend several months in a row in a different kind of performance than being on the operatic stage?

SG: I enjoy so many different kinds of performing, that I really like mixing it up between opera, orchestra concerts and recitals.  The grandeur of the opera is a good balance for the intimacy one can achieve in the concert venue, particularly in smaller halls like the ones in Santa Fe! In fact, I’ve been known to turn up in places even as intimate as Vanessie’s!

[Below: Mezzo-soprano Susan Graham; photograph by Dario Acosta.]

Wm: Vanessie’s! The Santa Fe nightspot that is one of  the venues in which the Santa Fe Opera Apprentice Singers perform!

In late July, you will be appearing at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival. What music are you singing there? As a native of New Mexico do you take special pride in the contribution Santa Fe is making to the world of opera, vocal and chamber music?

SG: I am very proud of the level of music and art that New Mexico provides to the American cultural scene.  The Santa Fe Opera has long been a mainstay and leader in the world’s summer opera festivals, and one that I have appeared in at least 8 operas over the last 20 years!

The Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival has become a wonderful opportunity to bring great musicians together, for a series of concerts in all different “chamber” configurations.  I look forward to performing Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde for the first time this week. I can’t imagine a better place to perform these songs for the first time than right here at home in Santa Fe.

Being a native New Mexican, I am honored to be the first artist-in-residence at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival.  The music making is at such a high level, and many of my colleagues from around the country are here. I think we all enjoy the opportunity to park ourselves in a beautiful place for a comparatively lengthy period and make great music with esteemed colleagues.

Wm:  I recently reviewed you singing the title role in an uncut presentation Handel’s “Xerxes” at the Houston Grand Opera. The performance, under Conductor William Lacey, is a revival of Sir Nicholas Hytner’s whimsical production, satirizing the London of Handel’s time, with David Daniels, Laura Claycomb and Sonia Prina.

There are some, and I believe Lacey might be included among them, that regard the Houston performances as the best presentation of a Handel opera in modern times. Do you agree with that assessment? Do you believe that performing “Xerxes” uncut adds insights into this work?

SG: Well, I’ve never seen or performed “Xerxes” before, so I really can’t compare.  There is an argument that some of the music is unnecessary to the plot, but when there is a cast as accomplished as the one we had in Houston, I’m just happy to hear everyone sing as much of that amazing music as possible.

[Below: King Xerxes (Susan Graham, left) indulges in sight-seeing as two citizens stand by; edited image, based on a Felix Sanchez photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

The virtuosity of Sonia and Laura is astonishing, and the great David Daniels brings beauty and pathos to his roles that few, if any, countertenors can equal.  I would listen to him sing the phone book, and Handel’s music FAR surpasses that. When David sings a lament, it’s magic and everyone stands still in the wings and swoons.

Wm: Before the Houston “Xerxes” you were in Chicago with Paul Groves and John Relyea in Berlioz’ “Damination of Faust” in an imaginative production by Stephen Langridge.

It seemed to me that Langridge solved some of the riddles about how to mount this problematical work as an opera, rather than a “oratorio-like” concert performance with orchestra. Do you sing Marguerite in “Damnation” both in its oratorio and operatic stagings? Have you developed a preference on how the work should be staged?

SG: Actually I have never performed “Damnation” in anything other than a staged production, and this was my fifth!  Because of its disjointed nature, it does provide narrative problems for some directors.  This production of Stephen Langridge addressed this by placing the action in a modernist, mathematician’s mind, whose logical, number-driven existence yearns for love and passion.

[Below: Marguerite (Susan Graham) encounters Faust (Paul Groves) in her bedroom; edited image, based on a Dan Rest photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera, Chicago.]

A lot of fantasy video game images get in his (Faust’s) way, but it is presented as a kind of vision that he’s having through the help of Mephistopheles’ “magic visionary glasses” that let him see what he’s been missing.  Because of the fantasy-nature, it sort of allows things to jump around as Berlioz wrote it, while maintaining a cohesive story line.

Wm: As a singer associated with 18th century opera at major opera companies worldwide, you have appeared in quite different efforts to make these pieces relevant to modern audiences. John Copley’s production of Handel’s “Ariodante” that you sang at San Francisco Opera presented it seriously in elegant Regency-style costumes, Hytner’s production of Handel’s “Xerxes” presented the opera satirically, yet with an underlying respect for 18th century London.

Robert Carsen presented Gluck’s “Iphigenie en Tauride” (whose San Francisco Opera production I reviewed) in a starkly modern staging. Do you find each of these ways of presenting 18th century opera adds insights to the works? Do you have a preference for a particular way of staging them?

SG: I tend to have pre-conceived notions going into some of these different types of productions, afraid that this one will be too static, that one will be too abstract, how can I fit in and make it work?  But invariably I have been able to find, through the music and great directors, the way to communicate most effectively within a certain confine.

[Below: the Knight Ariodante (Susan Graham, left) with Ginevra (Ruth Ann Swenson); edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

I CHERISHED the stillness of Copley’s “Ariodante”, yet reveled in the comparative experimentation of the David Alden production of the same opera (at Houston Grand Opera).  Both were very effective in the telling of this story.  As for Carsen’s “Iphigenie”, the genius is in the starkness, the symbolism, and the madness that is going on in Iphigenie’s head, which is what the main object is.

My preference is just to find the truth in each moment, and communicate it as honestly and bare-boned as I can, whatever the style or parameter.

Wm: How did you become interested in opera, and what led you to prepare for an operatic career?

SG: I was a pianist from a young age, and eventually got into singing through school and church choirs.  Soon it was clear that I enjoyed being in front of the piano much more than being behind it, and auditions for school musicals soon followed.  I won the lead role of Maria in “The Sound of Music” at age 17 in my high school in Midland Texas, and was hooked!

I had grown up watching musical theatre both live and in the movies, but I had had very little exposure to opera.  When I got to college at Texas Tech, I was a voice major and had to be in the chorus of an opera.  It seemed so impossible, so unlikely that one could sing in all those languages, learn all those styles, and get to sing SUCH great classical, serious music, that I had to try it!

[Iphigenie (Susan Graham, with knife) threatens to kill her brother Orest (Bo Skovhus, center); edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

I got great training at TTU, and then furthered my studies at the Manhattan School of Music, the Blossom Music Festival, and the Merola Opera Program at the San Francisco Opera.  I was a Met National Council Winner, and soon after started auditioning for and getting roles in US companies like Seattle Opera, Michigan Opera Theatre, Opera Theatre of St Louis, Santa Fe Opera, San Diego Opera.  Eventually I debuted at the Met, and then Europe happened and the rest is…..

Wm: Your early experience as an operatic artist took place at San Francisco Opera in their Young Artists programs. Would you describe what you learned during this time of your career, and the extent to which that impacted your later operatic career.

SG: I went into the Merola program with eyes wide open and ready to learn everything.  I had never been to California before, and was thrilled to be selected into this elite group of 19 young singers from all over the country.  For me, it was like the best summer camp imaginable, where I met and became great friends with Patrick Summers, as well as lots of great singers.

The level and breadth of training was so great, encompassing everything from intense language study, to operatic stage deportment, role study, voice lessons, and master classes with the likes of Regine Crespin!  The operas we did that summer weren’t very mezzo-friendly:  “Suor Angelica”, “Don Pasquale” and “Gianni Schicchi”!  But I threw myself into learning The Composer in “Ariadne auf Naxos”, as well as some scenes from “Der Rosenkavalier”.

I won the First Place Schwabacher Award that summer, and it set me off with such confidence and feeling very validated.  I think it was a critical springboard for me, and is still one of the best apprentice programs in the country, now under the amazing Sheri Greenawald.

Wm: I recently read an opinion piece that criticized particular Young Artists programs for “exploiting” young singers, by not paying them what they are worth for covering the main artists and in for singing the comprimario roles. Would you agree or disagree with this position? Does the high number of applications for each of these Young Artists and apprenticeship programs indicate that there is perceived value to those who participate in such programs?

SG: In times like these, I’m thrilled that people are still willing to follow their musical dreams and undergo the intense training and sacrifice required for such a career/calling.  There are young singers still coming out of universities and conservatories every year in great numbers, and for the most part, they need finishing work to bridge the gap between student and professional.  I know many of them are panicked, because I get letters from some of them asking me, “What should I do, where should I go?”  Of course the answer is different for everyone, and there are many paths to explore.

And as for being paid “what they’re worth,”  that’s difficult to assess.  I was relieved  to even GET a paycheck those first few jobs, I was just thrilled to get the experience and be onstage learning my craft.  It’s almost like an extension of the training program, but I do concur that sometimes, the young artists are called upon to do an enormous amount of work that has now been taken away from more established artists, i.e. higher-paid ones, and foisted onto the Young Artists in a given company.

This is a danger artistically, in my opinion, when too much is asked of a  younger house singer who might not have the chops of a more experienced character singer, for example, in a smaller role that requires a certain amount of panache and knowledge.  But I think there is enormous advantage for both the young singer and the company, when they are called upon to understudy the principal roles and rehearse them in full preparation.

Wm: Thank you, Susan.

For my reviews of performances discussed in this interview, see: “Xerxes” Unexcelled – Houston Grand Opera, May, 2, 2010,

and see also: Berlioz’ Faust Fantastique: Lyric Opera Does “Damnation” – Chicago, March 8, 2010,

and see also: Graham, Swenson, Prina Luminous in S. F.’s Stellar “Ariodante” – June 15, 2008

and see also: Night at the Museum: “Iphigenie en Tauride” Springs to Life in S. F. – June 17, 2007