Classic FM Meets Susan Graham

Mezzo-Soprano Susan Graham regales Classic FM with tales from behind the scenes.

“Ow! Ow, ow, ow!” This is not a good start to an interview. “No, honey, it’s fine; I’ve just found a bruise. It’s always the same when I play these damn trouser roles [male parts played by women, the usual lot of a mezzo-soprano] – I get flung around, I have to fight, and I’m covered in bruises.”

Susan Graham was singing The Composer in Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos at the Royal Opera House when Classic FM meets her, and the rough and tumble of her role isn’t the only thing she’d change.

“The Composer is in his own little world in the show, so I’ve not really become part of the cast family in this production. It’s the nature of this opera that little cliques form amongst the cast. It’s a shame though – in most shows I’m the cruise director, organising the outings and the dinners!”

Classic FM can well believe it. Susan Graham is exactly the kind of person you’d want to have on your team: great fun, full of fabulous and often unrepeatable tales, radiating energy and with an enormous laugh. She has us in stitches for the hour we spend together and Classic FM would love to share some of the stories she has about her fellow opera stars, but a discreet veil must be drawn over them.

It’s a particularly good time for Susan right now. She’s about to play her first Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni in Chicago, with Bryn Terfel taking the wicked Don’s role.

“It’ll be a blast – I love Bryn. I’ve only ever been thrown around by him before but this time I get to personify female rage and get my own back. Even better, he makes me feel petite! We have four weeks’ rehearsal time, which will be fantastic for me as it’s my first time, but will drive Bryn insane as he’s done it so many times before. Ha!”

In the transient life of an international opera singer, getting to perform with old friends must be a real bonus. “Oh yes, it’s like seeing your cousins, catching up with those familial bonds. These guys are some of my best friends. But it’s tough planning it. I’m already being booked for the 2007–08 season.”

It comes as no surprise to hear about her busy schedule. Susan has been making that transition from musician’s musician to people’s favourite and has a particularly strong following in France. But she’s most definitely American, with homes in New York and Santa Fe.

“My heart’s in Santa Fe and my furniture is in New York!” After 19 years living in New York, where she studied, Susan wanted to put roots down back where she’d grown up. Though of course with the summer festival in Santa Fe, her retreat is hardly a hideaway.
“It’s a bit like Cannes for music and musicians. But it’s home – my sister is three hours south, my Mum two hours away too, so I always work in a family visit. Last year I was singing in the festival for three months, and I felt as if I was on vacation the whole time, especially as I was in a comic operetta.”

Susan admits she’s a complete oddity in her family. Where she grew up there wasn’t an opera house for 300 miles.

“Dad was an oil man and a baseball coach to the little league. He had a huge voice, so that combined with my mother’s musical talent must explain where I get it from. Mum plays the piano still. In fact she’s been playing by ear since she was four. It’s such a gift. You know, they lived out in the middle of nowhere on the ranch, and one day my grandfather strapped a piano to the pick-up truck and drove it out there, and mum would just play.”

Growing up in the Graham family, it was simply assumed that the girls would have piano lessons, and that the boys were athletic. Susan still plays when she’s in New York, a city that she says she’s still in love with, probably because she’s hardly ever there.

“I live on the Upper West Side, and it’s a major selling point is that my place is just seven minutes walk from the stage door of the Met, darling!”

Now, though, her dream is to own an apartment in Paris. The French love her and her interpretations of French music, and as a result she feels more of a Parisian than she ever did a New Yorker.

“I think my love affair with the French must have started in another life. The first time I saw the Eiffel Tower I burst into tears. I was in Paris to sing Berlioz so I wasn’t a tourist, I was already immersed in the culture, which I think is very important to feeling at home in a place. I still feel an outsider in New York – I’ve always been the country kid. But when I was embraced by the culture in Paris, by the people who love what I do, it was a very powerful psychological thing for me.”

A few days before we met, Susan had been asked to sing at a benefit concert at the Louvre, partly because she’s just been awarded the Chevalier, a great honour and a bit like being made a dame here in the UK.

“The morning after, it was the annual inspection of the Mona Lisa when they take her out of her frame, and they let me watch. I couldn’t breathe! The directors of the Louvre were like little kids, saying, ‘Let’s take your photo peering out of the frame’. It wouldn’t be like that in New York – they would be so serious!”

Classic FM can’t help feeling pretty surprised at that behaviour but the evidence is in the pictures, and sure enough there’s a certain American mezzo-soprano smiling mysteriously out of a very famous frame. Better than a T-shirt from the Louvre shop, wouldn’t you agree?

Her French musical love affair looks set to continue. Susan has released a CD of Ives songs with the Parisian pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard.

“Some of them are fiendish. But Pierre-Laurent was amazing, he brought so much understanding to them.”

She also has plans for a CD of Debussy and Ravel with the BBC SO and Yan Pascal Tortelier.

It’s all good news for us. If the Parisian apartment comes to pass, hopefully Susan will hop on the Eurostar and make more appearances here.