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Susan Graham: The American opera star performing with the NZSO

Finding the right mindset: Susan Graham. Photo/Supplied

Grammy-winning American mezzo-soprano Susan Graham brings a mix of Texan earthiness and French flair to concerts with the NZSO.

When American mezzo-soprano Susan Graham sings in New Zealand for the first time this month, it will be more than three decades since she took a life-changing opportunity to reinvent herself. Aged 25 and with a master’s degree in music from Texas Tech University, she wondered if she was good enough for a singing career.

“I’d grown up thinking, ‘You don’t want to stick out too much because people might think you’re full of yourself.’ That mindset was holding me back.”

Graham moved to New York and enrolled at the Manhattan School of Music. The turning point came in a masterclass with veteran singer Mignon Dunn. Facing an audience of “hoity-toity New York students who’d grown up going to the Met every weekend”, Graham imagined they were thinking, “Who’s this upstart, this greenhorn, this country hick from Texas?”

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

Dunn pushed her “way out of my comfort zone”. In the famous mezzo role of Cherubino from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, Graham was directed to run up and down the aisles, grabbing people by the collar and singing them Cherubino’s story.

Terrified, she decided “to throw caution to the wind and go the whole hog”. It changed her life, she says. “I finally gave up worrying about what I looked like or what people thought of me.”

After that memorable masterclass, her career took off. Within two years, Graham was singing the title role in Massenet’s Chérubin, garnering glowing reviews from the New York Times and others and winning prestigious prizes.

As a young mezzo-soprano, Graham specialised in “trouser” roles such as Cherubino. “I’m not the earth-mother kind of mezzo, I’m the boy-next-door kind,” the 58-year-old says. “As I’ve gotten older, my voice has become less silvery, more burnished, with a little more weight in the middle. Technically, I’m in a really good place. I feel lucky, because for some, especially women, the mid- to late-fifties aren’t so easy.”

When Graham talks to the Listener, she’s driving in Los Angeles traffic. She moved there because it is her husband’s hometown and refers a little wistfully to her three decades immersed in the classical-music culture of New York. “The main gig in Los Angeles is the film industry. If you’re not in that, you’re sort of secondary.” She still has an apartment five minutes from the stage door of New York’s Metropolitan Opera, on whose stage she has dazzled critics and audiences in many major roles. In 2004, she won the Grammy for Best Classical Vocal Performance, for her album Ives: Songs (The Things Our Fathers Loved; The Housatonic at Stockbridge), and three of her other recordings have been nominated. 

Director Edo de Waart. Photo/Getty Images

With the NZSO, Graham will sing the solo cantata La Mort de Cléopâtre by French composer Hector Berlioz under Dutch music director Edo de Waart. Her affinity for French opera and song were recognised when she was made a Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur by the government.

She suggests her preference is partly because French suits her vocal timbre. “From growing up in Texas, some think, I have a natural nasal twang, which suits the language. But, mostly, I love the delicious surprises of French music – as a pianist I grew up playing Debussy and Ravel. And expression is not overt in French repertoire and that elegant restraint suits my temperament as well.”

La Mort de Cléopâtre was the young Berlioz’s third bid for the coveted Prix de Rome. Frightened by the work’s “audacity”, the conservative jury threw it out in 1829. Graham is enthusiastic about the composition and her role as the ill-fated Egyptian queen. “I love the contrasts of nobility and human frailty in the music. The character of Cleopatra is very fully drawn.”

Graham hasn’t forgotten her early self-doubt as a performer and prides herself on being kind to colleagues having a bad day. “In America, we call that ‘Miss Congeniality’,” she says, laughing. She works with singers in the Los Angeles Opera Young Artist Program. “They’re on the cusp of starting a career and my job is to give them wings, the confidence that I gained – [to help them] to stop caring about how they’re perceived and just commit to the music.”

Graham, who sang at fellow Texan George W Bush’s inauguration in 2005, is saddened that the present US administration doesn’t celebrate the arts. “They don’t hold us up and single us out any more. You don’t see classical music at the White House and the President doesn’t attend the Kennedy Center Honors [for performing artists], which is unheard of. We in the arts are more passionately resolved to let the arts be a balm, a place for audiences to put troubles and worries aside. But it’s a very challenging time – our country is quite unhappy.”

The Planets: NZSO, with conductor Edo de Waart, Susan Graham and Voices New Zealand Chamber Choir; music by Anna Clyne, Berlioz and Gustav Holst, Auckland Town Hall, March 29; Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, March 30.

This article was first published in the March 30, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.