The Wit and Wisdom of Susan Graham

Classic Arts Features   The Wit and Wisdom of Susan Graham
The star mezzo returns to the Met this month in the title role of Susan Stroman's new production of Lehšr's The Merry Widow. She tells the Met's Philipp Brieler about opera, operetta, and her "gift of gab."

PB: You sang Hanna Glawari in the Met's previous staging of The Merry Widow ten years ago. What made you want to revisit the role in this new production?

SG: Hanna's a great character. She's got a lot of sass! Anytime you can play a role that has such range, it's always a lot of fun, because she's comedic, she's sincere, she gets to sing some beautiful music. Lehšr's score is a classic, and it's very well balanced in terms of ensembles and solo numbers. And the Vilja Song is always a really special moment. Rod Gilfry [who sings Danilo] and I have done this operetta together before at the L.A. Opera and we enjoy working together a lot. Plus I'm obviously very excited to work with Susan Stroman. So I think it'll just be lots of fun.

PB: Many singers have said that operetta requires the same vocal discipline and technique as opera. But what are the specific challenges of this repertoire?

SG: You have to come to it with strong ideas, and you have to bring a lot of energy, to up your game a little bit, because, particularly for a character like Hanna, stuff doesn't just happen to her. She's no operatic victim or anything like that. Hanna makes everything happen. So my challenge is to bring that level of energy and intellect and wit and charm to what the character is demanding of me.

PB: How about the vocal aspect?

SG: It's kind of the same thing because all of those characteristics have to come through in the singing as well. It's closer to musical comedy, but you still have to sing it with a big, operatic technique, because it's difficult music. And a lot of it is music that people know. So you want to honor that and make them happy hearing those familiar melodies.

PB: As a singer who's particularly identified with the French repertoire, do you enjoy performing in your native language?

SG: I do! I think everybody loves to sing in their native tongue, because there's an immediacy to it. There's a level of communication you don't have to filter through a translation, either for yourself or for the audience. The Merry Widow is one of those things that is perfectly translatable and has been done in lots of languages. I wouldn't want to hear a Verdi opera in English, but in this case, I think it's a great fit.

PB: You'll be reuniting with Fabio Luisi for these performances. Tell us about your collaboration.

SG: Oh, I love working with him. We had such a wonderful discovery of each other in Les Troyens a couple of years ago. I find him absolutely devoted to the integrity of the music, whatever style it is.

PB: Another role you play very successfully at the Met is that of Live in HD host: as in the transmission of Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci on April 25. Have you always known you had T V talent?

SG: Anybody who knows me has always known that I have the "gift of gab." [Laughs.] I just enjoy talking to people. And when I'm hosting these broadcasts, I'm really just talking to my friends. It's like being at a party and chatting with people and having fun. When I'm performing, whether I'm singing onstage or hosting, it all comes from the same place, from a desire to communicate. So whatever form that takes, I just want the audience, whether they're in the house or in the movie theater, to enjoy what they're seeing and to get the inside story. I think that's why the hosting is so much fun for me.

PB: Has the global reach of the HD transÔ_ missions had an impact on your career?

SG: It certainly has had an impact on how people perceive me. Wherever I go: I'm on a recital tour right now: when people talk to me afterwards, someone will always say, "We love you hosting the HDs in movie theaters." Everyone goes to those in places all over the country. So in that sense they have a big impact.

PB: Next season you'll be making your role debut as Countess Geschwitz in a new production of Lulu, conducted by James Levine. Between Berlioz and Lehšr, how does Berg fit into your repertoire?

SG: It's certainly something different and pretty far away from anything I've ever done before. I made a career on what I like to think of as beautiful lyric parts. And Geschwitz has some of that, but the whole nature of the score is quite different. It's a challenge. But I'm so excited to be working with Jimmy.

PB: Director William Kentridge has a very distinctive visual style. Have you spoken with him yet?

SG: I haven't. I'm an absolutely clean slate with this project. So I'm very excited. And terrified. [Laughs.] A little of both.

The Merry Widow ran through May 7. Lulu opens next season on November 5.

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