In opera, female performers are typically placed into one of three vocal ranges. At the lowest register is the contralto; the highest range belongs to the soprano. Between them is the mezzo-soprano, possessor of a deep and rich tone that can soar upward on demand. Among the most popular of the modern mezzos is Susan Graham. Called one of the outstanding opera singers to emerge during the 1990s, Graham has taken the stage at venues from Salzburg to Santa Fe. She is also highly regarded as a concert recital singer and recording artist.
Graham grew up in New Mexico and Texas, a tomboy who enjoyed pop music. But Graham’s destiny was made clear early. “One day, when Susan was 8 or 9,” her mother was quoted in Dallas Morning News, “she was singing around the house and she let out this loud trill. And I thought, ‘My, she has a big voice.’” As Graham related to Maria Nockin in an Opera Japonica interview, her early musical education consisted of “piano studies, and church and school choirs.” Though she didn’t consider her voice to be of a particularly low range in her youth, Graham still gravitated to the alto section of her high school chorale, finding “the melody line of the soprano section too boring.” She also served as a piano accompanist.
By age 15, Graham had discovered that her vocal talent exceeded her piano skills and began to study voice in earnest. A lead role in a high school production of the Sound of Music awakened Graham’s acting bug, and she enrolled in the Manhattan School of Music. “It was important for me to be a part of a more personal, one-on-one environment than a bigger conservatory could provide,” she explained to Nockin. Graham trained at the Merola Opera Program in San Francisco, then hit the audition circuit. Her acknowledged professional debut was with Samuel Barber’s Vanessa during the St. Louis Opera’s 1988 season. Graham made her first appearance at New York’s Metropolitan Opera (the Met) in 1991, singing the Second Lady in Mozart’s Magic Flute.
Audiences and critics quickly took to Graham’s charismatic presence and polished vocals. “There is no need for cautiously qualified words when it comes to the outstanding artistry” of Graham, said London Times critic John Allison. “She is simply the most exciting American singer of her generation.” As her reputation grew, so did the singer’s roles. Standing five foot ten, Graham cuts a commanding figure onstage; that and her range have made her a favorite for the so-called “trouser roles,” male operatic characters played by women. She sang Hansel in Hansel and Gretel and Cherubino in Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, for example, then caused box-office “phones [to ring] off the hook,” according to a Vanity Fair writer, when she played Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier at the Met, opposite soprano Renee Fleming as Marschallin.
Graham is credited with increasing the awareness of the mezzo, whose numbers include such headliners as
Born c. 1961; grew up in Roswell, NM, and Midland, TX. Education: Graduated from Manhattan School of Music.
Performer in opera and recital; made operatic debut in Vanessa, 1988; has toured internationally with opera companies in productions including The Magic Flute, Hansel and Gretel, The Marriage of Figaro, La Damnation de Faust, Indomeneo, and Der Rosenkavalier; created original roles in premieres of The Great Gatsby and Dead Man Walking; recording artist.
Awards: Metropolitan Opera National Council audition winner; Schwabacher award, Merola Program; career grant from Richard Tucker Foundation; Performance Today “critic’s choice,” Caecilia Prize, and Preis der Deutschen Schallpattenkritik, all for La Belle Epoque; BBC Music “critic’s choice” for Mozart & Gluck Arias, 2001; “editor’s choice,” Opera News and Gramophone, both for C’est ca la vie, c’est ga I’amour, 2002; named by the French government Chevalier of the Order of Arts & Letters.
Addresses: Agent —Sylvie Bigar International Public Relations, 125 West 72nd St., Suite 5R, New York, NY 10023, phone: (212) 496-0112, website: http://www.iprny.com. Website —Susan Graham Official Website: http://www.susangraham.com.
Marilyn Home, Frederica von Stade, Cecelia Bartoli, and Tatiana Troyanos. “Everyone is talking about the ‘mezzo-mania’ that’s going on,” Graham remarked in a 2001 Opera Journal interview with Bruce Duffie, “and I think we’re all different enough to be interesting and all have something to offer.” The performer chooses her roles carefully: “I have to consider range,” she told Duffie. “I’m not a low mezzo. I’m a high mezzo. If a role lies too much in the middle and too low, then it’s not interesting to me. The strength of my mezzo is closer to the top.” Nor is Graham interested in grandstanding: “I’ve no problem saying ‘no’” to Tosca, Mimi in La Boheme, or other soprano showcases, she said in Duffie’s article. “I don’t want to get into that arena.”
By 1999 Graham had joined the select group of singers tapped to premiere new operas. When John Harbison’s production of the Great Gatsby bowed that year, Graham sang the role of socialite Jordan Baker. “She seemed born to play the cool, sardonic professional golfer whom Fitzgerald describes as having ‘an erect carriage,’” noted Vogue’s Charles Michener. But perhaps Graham’s most high-profile part to date came a year later, when she created the operatic role of Sister Helen Prejean in Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking. Based on the memoir by Prejean, which had been previously adapted into a feature film, the opera follows the story of a nun who ministers to an inmate on death row. The role is a complex one: “Not only does Sister Helen aggressively defend a man who has received the death penalty for raping, mutilating and stabbing a woman 37 times,” wrote David Stearns in BBC Music, “but, in a dramatically charged confrontation, must defend this friendship to the deceased victim’s embittered parents.”
Graham initially wondered if she were out of her depth in this opera: “At first I said, ‘I don’t think I can do this—it’s ‘too gut-wrenching,’” she said in a Time Out New York piece by Steve Smith. But composer Heggie had no such reservations: Graham “brought out many things I wasn’t aware were there,” he said to Stearns. “She’s a very serious worker, and that raised the bar for everyone else to rise to the occasion.” Costar Frederica von Stade, who played the condemned man’s mother, also had praise for Graham, calling her simply “sano,” Italian for “healthy” or “wholesome”—“a term not often applied to opera singers,” remarked David Mermelstein in a New York Times article.
Dead Man Walking premiered at the San Francisco Opera in October of 2000, and “any number of critics hailed her [characterization] as the performance of her life,” as Stearns noted. Meeting the real Sister Helen helped Graham refine her portrayal. “I’d been playing her with a harder edge… a little bit sarcastic,” the singer told Stearns. “Now I see that she’s propelled by humour. She’s this little dynamo.” Unlike most operas with their historical or fantasy settings and larger-than-life characters, Dead Man Walking takes place in the here-and-now, and deals with real people confronting the controversial issue of the death penalty. “I think both positions are represented with great integrity,” Graham said to Mermelstein. “But Sister Helen is decidedly against the death penalty, and she gets more air time, so there is a slant in that direction.” USA Today reviewer Thomas May summed up the production as no less than “a watershed moment in contemporary American opera.”
When not appearing in operas, Graham has taken the stage as a repertory concert singer. A New York Times reviewer, Anthony Tommasini, found the performer “utterly at home” in this forum. While she specializes in French texts, such as Debussey’s “Trois melodies,” Graham also “is admirably committed to living American composers,” commented Tommasini. Though she professes her love for opera—“I love the doing of it,” she said in Duffie’s interview—Graham added that “it’s been a priority of mine to get more concerts going here in America… I think it’s important, and I readily embrace the opportunity to just stand and sing. That’s kind of fun.” One other perk, she quipped to Valerie Gladstone of Town & Country: “Recitals [mean] you never have to buy your own flowers.”
While her busy career has precluded such things as marriage and children, Graham spoke of a seven-year relationship she had with conductor Edo de Waart: “We performed a lot together, which is wonderful to do with someone who is also your partner,” she said to Michener. “But ultimately we broke up because we were in different places. He wanted domesticity, and my career was just beginning to blossom.” Still, the opera star refuses to play the role of diva. “I don’t have time to be a diva,” she declared in a Harper’s Bazaar piece. “Your luggage is lost, you miss your connection. Life is too short to get upset.” For her recreational listening, Graham is partial to Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, George Gershwin, and Cole Porter.
“I see myself as someone whose career has been sort of slow and steady,” Graham said in an Opera News interview by David Baker. “I see friends and colleagues who certainly have had much more meteoric rises than I have. Not that I’m complaining at all, because I’m very, very happy. I have the best coach in the business, I have wonderful management and I’ve got a lovely record contract, and everything is just right,”—at this point, noted Baker, Graham comically drops her voice—“professionally.”
Béatrice et Benedict, Erato, 1992.
Scenes from Goethe’s Faust, Sony Classical, 1995.
Roméo et Juliette, BMB/RCA, 1996.
Les Nuits d’&èt, Sony Classical, 1997.
La Belle Epoque, Sony Classical, 1999.
Strauss Heroines, Decca, 1999.
Alcina, Erato, 2000.
Songs of Ned Rorem, Erato, 2000.
II tenero momento, Erato, 2001.
Dead Man Walking, Erato, 2001.
Mozart & Gluck Arias, Erato, 2001.
C’est ça la vie, c’est ça I’amour, Erato, 2002.
BBC Music, March 2002.
Dallas Morning News, June 18, 2000.
Harper’s Bazaar, January 2000.
New York Times, April 19, 2000; October 1, 2000.
Opera Journal, June 2001.
Opera News, January 2000.
Time Out New York, August 30, 2001.
Times (London, England), February 9, 2002.
Town & Country, September 2000.
USA Today, October 9, 2000.
Vanity Fair, November 2000.
Vogue, March 2000.
“Susan Graham,” Opera Japonica, http://www.operajaponcia.org (August 28, 2002).
Susan Graham Official Website, http://www.susangraham.com (August 28, 2002).