Life in a Song

Classic Arts Features   Life in a Song
Mezzo-soprano Susan Graham makes a highly anticipated recital debut at Carnegie Hall this month.

Susan Graham is certainly no stranger to Carnegie Hall. Already this season, the glamorous mezzo-soprano from Roswell, New Mexico (who now makes New York her home), has sung Berlioz's song-cycle Les Nuits d'étéãone of her signature piecesãwith the Orchestra of St. Luke's, and she returns in May to sing in Mozart's Mass in C Minor with the Met Orchestra.

But looming on the horizon is an altogether different animal for this splendid artist: Graham's Carnegie Hall recital debut on April 14, when she performs a demanding program of German and French songs with her regular recital partner, Malcolm Martineau.

The singer isn't nervous at all in anticipation of her recital. "It's an enormous thrill!" she exclaims. "When my manager first told me, I was in shockãmy jaw dropped and stayed open for three days. But I sing all over the world, and, although sometimes they say that the hometown crowd is the toughest, when I walk onto that stage, it feels like my living room."

A glance at the April program shows Graham's fearlessness in choosing songs. She'll juxtapose Brahms's cabaret-like Zigeunerlieder and Debussy's dreamy Proses lyriques in the first half; follow with Berg's muscular Seven Early Songs and Poulenc's typically witty Quartre poèmes de Guillaume Apollinaire; and then end with a trio of delightful French operetta arias she recently recorded on Erato with Yves Abel and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.

"The previous recital tours I'd been doing were heavy on American music, so this time I decided to pull out all the stops with the heavy European literature," Graham explains.

"The Brahms is a very healthy German appetizer, then the Debussy comes along as a delicious fish in a buttery sauce," she says with a smile. "Then the Berg is another healthy, meaty dish, the Poulenc a nice French cheese, and when you get to the operetta numbers, it's time for wine and dessert."

Graham enjoys tweaking her audience's expectations. "It's a lot of fun to begin the program with the Zigeunerlieder, whose opening song ['He, Zigeuner'] begins like a trumpet fanfare. It makes you sit up and listen. A lot of people tiptoe into the beginning of a recital, but I like to jump right into it."

Graham also points out a similarity between the song cycles by Debussy and Berg, two composers not usually linked. "Their pieces weren't written that far apart in time," she says. (Proses lyriques dates from 1895, and Berg's set was begun a decade later.) "They show the differing musical trends in Germany and France during that period. But the Debussy is more operatic and meatier than usual for him, and the Berg, of course, is also heavily dramatic."

The least performed works on the program are the operetta ariasãtwo by André Messager and one by Moïses Simons. But Graham's passionate, delectable recordings of those and kindred works by Arthur Honegger, Reynaldo Hahn, and Maurice Yvain on her CD C'est ça la vie, c'est ça l'amour (the title of the Simons song) are giving them all a deserved new lease on life.

"'J'ai deux amants' is a very cute song about a woman who states the advantages of having more than one lover," explains the mezzo-soprano. "'Vois-tu, je m'en veux' is very sweet, and 'C'est ça la vie' is just a lot of fun to sing!"

Graham praises her musical partner, an equally important component in their successful collaboration. "Malcolm is such an amazing pianist, and these works are great showcase pieces for him as well," she says. "He plays all of these pieces so divinely."

In this Berlioz bicentennial year, Grahamãin addition to her performances of Les Nuits d'étéãwill sing Didon in Les Troyens for the first time, which she discusses with excitement. "Operatically speaking, that's Mount Everest for me," she says. "To finally get to do the queen of French opera is a huge thrill." Graham will also sing Purcell's Dido (opposite Ian Bostridge's Aeneas) and Helen of Troy in Offenbach's operetta La Belle Hélène this year. "It's my Hellenic troika," she jokes.

The mezzo-soprano has come a long way from the aspiring singer who attended Texas Tech. She remembers visiting New York during spring break 20 years ago and attending a Met performance of Der Rosenkavalier with Tatiana Troyanos and Kiri Te Kanawa. "Sitting up in the nosebleed seats, I thought to myself, 'I want to do that,'" Graham says. She eventually studied at the Manhattan School of Music.

Among her most prized possessions are two photos: The first has her standing outside the Met in 1983 next to the poster for the Troyanos Rosenkavalier, the second shows her (and her poodle Libby) standing next to her own Rosenkavalier poster 16 years later, when she starred with Renée Fleming. "Those are the 'pinch me' moments," she says, "that make me say to myself, 'Where did this life come from?'"

She knows where she is going, however, as her career continues on a trajectory even sheãthe eternally sunny optimistãcouldn't have foreseen.

"This year alone, I will have done five new roles," the singer says. Then she admits, "Even for me, that's a big learning curve. It's a pretty big year."

Kevin Filipski is a frequent contributor to Playbill.

Recommended Reading: