To those who know Susan Graham through her Metropolitan Opera simulcasts, she would seem to be a creature of unending tragedy, dying and going to some ancient Greek purgatory in
Iphigenie en Tauride
, facing heartbreaking romantic choices at a tender age in
, and in seasons to come, dying from abandonment as Queen Dido in
But few wear the mantle of operatic stardom so lightly and irreverently as the off-stage Graham, who closes the Philadelphia Orchestra season with Berlioz's The Damnation of Faust Friday and Saturday. Consider, for example, her description of a recent Christmas concert in Montreal led by the seriously brilliant conductor Kent Nagano.
"It was in the cathedral, a full-blown TV thing, aired live. It was so much fun. But I have to say Kent Nagano and Christmas music is sort of mutually exclusive. We tried to make it as schmaltzy as he would let us. He doesn't do schmaltz." She sang a regimented version of "Oh Come All Ye Faithful." "It was like, get it over with!" she laughed the other day in her New York City apartment.
Some 20 years in opera capitals of the world - mainstays are Paris (because she's a French specialist) and New York (where she has a home), plus Houston, San Francisco, and Chicago - haven't tamed the straightforward New Mexico-born, Texas-educated mezzo-soprano, who is 50. But behind the outsized personality is a high-integrity performer who sings from her soul - even when recovering from illness, as she was in this season's Iphigenie simulcast, aided by black hankies specially made for the occasion that wouldn't show on camera.
If you think the Act 3 trio in Der Rosenkavalier is a tear-jerker for listeners, try singing it, she says, when the conductor is your boyfriend and the relationship is falling apart. Such was the case in the late-1990s performances conducted by Edo da Waart.
Yet when conductor James Levine canceled out of her Der Rosenkavalier performances earlier this year at the Metropolitan Opera, Graham recommended the now-married da Waart as a replacement, simply because he's one of the few who conduct that opera as sympathetically as Levine.
Her forthcoming Philadelphia Orchestra appearance will be her first since her low-profile 1991 debut in Mozart's Mass in C minor. Yet the city left its mark on her: It was in Rittenhouse Square that she learned to rollerblade, which became one of her preferred modes of transportation to her engagements. That's not the only reason she's likely to feel at home here. Some of her Damnation of Faust collaborators are colleagues she sees almost as often as she does her current boyfriend (the Los Angeles-based technical director Clay Brakeley).
Question: You seem to be part of a free-floating band of Berliozians that convenes at various points around the globe. You've often sung with tenor Paul Groves [with whom she'll sing this weekend] and you recorded scenes from Faust with Charles Dutoit.
Answer: And I did Berlioz's L'Enfance du Christ with Paul and Dutoit a couple of years ago in Zurich. This is our little Berlioz cycle. Paul Groves and I have done this piece together so many times. There'll be a lot of instinctive interaction that will come in this concert setting.
Q: Is it true that your most recent Faust, at Lyric Opera of Chicago, was modern dress? And that you sang one of your big scenes smoking a cigarette in some 1970s dress with your mom watching TV in the next room?
A: It was a fake cigarette. Marguerite was a workaday girl in a regular print dress and long brown hair and she came home from the factory. Her mother was watching a static-y TV with rabbit ears. In the score, Berlioz says she should be braiding her hair. In our version she was on the terrace, smoking. Faust was a brilliant scientist, like in the movie A Beautiful Mind. Paul Groves was seated at a big, old-fashioned computer terminal with video images of numbers swirling around that represented the interior of his mind. . . . It was very cool.
Q: Do such productions change the way you sing the role?
A: No. You gotta sing it the way Berlioz wrote it. It begins and ends with the music.
Q: Many people sing The Damnation of Faust for years in concert and never on the opera stage.
A: Berlioz didn't intend it to be staged. But I've done five different productions onstage; this is my first time in concert. Well, I take that back. many years ago when I was a student, I was in the choir and sang behind a then-unknown Anne Sofie von Otter. . . . I thought I'd love to sing that piece one day. And boy, did I.
Q: Nowadays, you have to deal with some unorthodox production effects. Do you put your foot down with some of the more interpretively adventurous productions?
A: Yes, I have. When you're young you'll take anything and say, 'Oh, that's brilliant.' But when you've been doing it for 20 years, you think, 'That's ridiculous! It has nothing to do with the piece and I can't make it work for me!' Then I gently modify it so I don't get something thrown at me when I express my opinions. If it truly detracts from the music or the opera or demeans a character who has no reason to be demeaned or diminished, I have to put my foot down.
Q: One of your tougher outings was an Idomeneo you did at the Paris Opera several years ago. . . . The audience couldn't wait to boo.
A: It had dancing jellyfish.
Q: It's strange that you haven't been in Philadelphia in so long. Why?
A: The stars have to be aligned. I sang for [Riccardo] Muti at the Academy of Music. Back in those days I was auditioning with Annio in La Clemenza di Tito and Dorabella in Cosi fan tutte - all that early young mezzo stuff. I was auditioning mostly for opera he was conducting in Italy, and he felt, quite rightly, there were plenty of Italian mezzos who could do that just fine.
Q: You're best known as a French mezzo but have never sung the most famous role in that world - Carmen. Why?
A: I know how I want the characters to sound and to look, and I never thought I could achieve what I want Carmen to be. I wanted a sexual threat in the voice that I don't possess. . . . The challenge is always what are you going to do that's new. I'm not going to go off and sing Tosca next week - though I'd like to. Who wouldn't want to sing Puccini? But he didn't take too kindly to mezzos, did he? Me as Suzuki Madame Butterfly]? Can you imagine? I did toy with the idea of singing Musetta [in La Boheme]. But I live in the world of Strauss and Massenet.
Q: I understand that you've returned to your Texas roots in your personal life. You're back with your high school sweetheart?
A: College sweetheart from Texas Tech. He knew me when I didn't know this life existed. He knew me when I was only dreaming about this. He understands the passion and drive and commitment that, for the most part, that comes first. Our pact - and this is a pact he came up with - is to protect the performance. He's better at taking care of that than I am. He'll say, 'No, we're not going out to that noisy restaurant tonight because you've got a performance tomorrow.' All right. Good! Thank you!
Performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra, Charles Dutoit conducting, with mezzo-soprano Susan Graham as Marguerite and tenor Paul Groves as Faust, at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the Kimmel Center, Broad and Spruce Streets. Tickets: $43 to $130. Information: 215-893-1999 or www.philorch.org.EndText