For two decades, Susan Graham has dazzled Metropolitan Opera audiences with performances in some of the powerhouse roles of the operatic repertoire—but she’s also a master interpreter of comic operetta, including Lehár’s The Merry Widow, which returns this month. As she prepared to star as the eponymous widow, the mezzo-soprano spoke to the Met’s Christopher Browner about one of her most beloved roles.
You’ve been singing Hanna for 15 years. What keeps you coming back to her?
It’s my favorite operetta role. She reminds me of me, in a way. She is a very deeply feeling person, though she hides it sometimes. She’s funny and sarcastic—all things I can relate to. And Lehár gives her such beautiful lines to sing. There’s so much theatricality to sink your teeth into with the music and so much opportunity for great character development. Not to mention that all night I’m surrounded by adoring men.
What are some of the challenges for you in singing operetta?
It is real singing, and it is very demanding. There are some talky bits—that’s part of the storytelling—but you’ve got to sing it like it’s Verdi or Puccini. So I sing it the same way that I sing anything else in my repertoire, bringing out those gorgeous long lines.
It’s not often that you sing in English.
Singing in English is fabulous because it’s our native language. You can color a word without having to think about it. Unlike when we do operas in other languages, expressing the text is very immediate and emotional and unconscious.
There is quite a bit of spoken dialogue in this piece. How does this affect your performance?
The dialogue allows us to make a lot more choices. We’re in charge of our own tempo and how long we make a line last. You can take a pregnant pause to give a long searing glance or a double take, for example.
Your Danilo this season is Paul Groves, with whom you’ve sung many times at the Met.
Oh, my gosh! We’ve sung together for more than 20 years, and, to tell you the truth, our biggest challenge in working together is keeping a straight face. He’s the funniest guy on the face of the earth, so at some point, he will crack me up, and I will crack him up. Hopefully I’ll be able to hold myself together.
Comedy comes naturally to you, doesn’t it?
Well, I am blessed with a good sense of humor. I find most things funny, so I can usually find the comedy in my roles. Most importantly, if you’re trying to make it funny, it’s not funny. If you just let the comedy do its job, it will land.