By Gary Murphy
After nearly 25 years performing on stages around the world, Susan Graham still finds the thrill of new challenges. Her opera repertoire spans four centuries and includes the premieres of several roles in contemporary operas, including Jordan Baker in John Harbison’s The Great Gatsby, Sondra Finchley in Tobias Picker’s An American Tragedy and Sister Helen Prejean—a role written for her—in Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking. This summer she took on another iconic role at Opera Theater of St. Louis performing Regina Giddens in Marc Blitzstein’s mid-century opera Regina, based on Lillian Hellman’s play The Little Foxes. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch stated it clearly when it cheered that Susan Graham is simply “an imperious force of nature.”
So it’s terrific news for LA Opera audiences that this November she’ll tackle another role debut as the Witch in LAO’s revival of Hansel and Gretel, directed by Doug Fitch and conducted by James Conlon.
Offstage, Susan begins year number two as Artistic Advisor for LA Opera’s Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artists where she provides direct mentorship to the young artists in the skills, methodologies and philosophies she has mastered over her many years of working in the international world of opera.
Just before conducting a master class at Santa Fe Opera this summer, Susan sat down with BRAVO to chat about the new roles she’s recently taken on.
BRAVO: First, congratulations on another role premiere, the title role of Regina at Opera Theater of St. Louis. It seems that in many ways, your embrace of new challenges defines your career. Certainly onstage, as Regina is a character with many challenges. Last season you also embraced an offstage role as Artistic Advisor at LA Opera.
Susan Graham: Plus, the offstage roles of wife and stepmother which also happened in the last two years!
BRAVO: Can you tell us a bit about the portraying Regina Giddens in Marc Blitztein’s 1945 opera based on Lillian Helman’s play The Little Foxes?
SG: When I started to do what I called my “big girl parts” in my early 40s, I started to sing Iphegénie and Didon, having graduated from Cherubino, Sesto and Dorabella. Fast-forward 15 years and now Regina appears, and it’s a chance to really flesh out a character with vocal colors, not to mention crackling dialogue in English which was a great describer of who she was. I also played Regina with some lightness and a distinct sense of humor, but I was also able to turn on a dime and rip you to shreds if Regina needed to.
The moment I picked up the score, I knew exactly who she was, a strong-willed and determined woman who didn’t have as many tools in her toolbox as her brothers did. She had to resort to other skills. Manipulation for sure—sweet when she needs to be sweet, and a viper when she needs to be, and a viper even when she doesn’t need to be. For me, it was so much fun to go outside the box.
Let’s just say, she ain’t Cherubino!
Many audience members told me afterwards, “You know, it’s really weird, and I don’t feel too good about myself with this, but I was really rooting for you by the end.” I think it’s because people saw Regina’s desperation, the clever scheming and the lengths she was willing to go to best her brothers who were rather unctuous and unlikable, so they liked me by default.
As the title character in L'incoronazione di Poppea
BRAVO: Which leads to your next role, the Witch in Hansel and Gretel, another not so likable character who kidnaps children, bakes them and turns them into gingerbread cookies. I’m not quite sure how you can play that sympathetically, or is that even something you would want to do?
SG: Well, you know, honestly, as we rehearsed Regina, I was thinking, “Is Regina even likable?” And I thought, “No.” And I don’t care. It’s okay to play a character who’s not likable.
So is the Witch a likable character? I’ve never seen a production of Hansel and Gretel where you hated the Witch all the way through because she must have some sort of attraction for children—other than her delicious candy house.
Doug Fitch told me his version for the Witch is a bit like the film What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?. She is not an inherently evil Witch who wants to eat children but rather a sort of a psychotic woman who wants to capture and preserve their childhood forever. Does she want to eat the gingerbread, or does she turn them into cookies so they become like museum pieces? She’s slightly creepier rather than evil. And with Doug’s costumes that include a big pink dress and blonde pigtails, she herself is like an overgrown little girl. And with my height, she’ll be really overgrown.
BRAVO: The Witch is a role debut, but had you performed Hansel and Gretel elsewhere?
SG: Actually, the very first role I sang for any kind of paycheck was Hansel. It was while I was at Manhattan School of Music and my friend James Toland was running the Eugene Opera in Oregon at that time. He also worked at Texas Tech University where I had done Hansel as an undergrad. He invited me and my friend who sang Gretel to come to Eugene and do two performances during Christmas time. And I never did it again.
And now here we are with the Witch. I call this my take-no-prisoners phase of my career. I think—a lot of people asked me about Regina, and I think it applies to the Witch too—I feel that I’ve spent thirty years proving myself and proving that I could sing all those beautiful Mozartian and French lines, and all that gorgeous Strauss. There was a lot of Regina that wasn’t pretty and there’s a lot of the Witch that isn’t pretty.
The men who sing the Witch usually do the whole thing in a character voice. I’ve not decided if that will be for me, but it all will become clear as we get into rehearsals. I love Humperdinck’s score. The Witch is written in a female range, so I think I’ll be me for some of it and choose to get a little crazy at other parts.
BRAVO: Hansel and Gretel runs during the holiday season, so most likely the audiences will be filled with families and children.
SG: Well, one of my stepchildren will be in the chorus. She just turned 12 and has been a part of the LA Children’s Chorus for several years. She’ll be one of the children there at the end. Talk about your stepmother being a witch…
As Marguerite in Damnation of Faust
BRAVO: This season you begin your second year as Artistic Advisor for LA Opera’s Domingo-Thornton-Stein Young Artists. Is this your first administrative role?
SG: It is, and it certainly was a leap of faith for me. Initially, I thought I’m not ready—I’m not a teacher. But as I talked to my LA Opera colleagues, it became clear that my years of hands-on experience has brought me a lot more knowledge than I realized.
Our profession is tricky, and you can find yourself in some sticky-wickets from time to time. I want not only to be a musical mentor but a professional mentor as well. I’ve had to cross many barriers and deal with situations these young artists have yet to experience.
Young singers are so often bombarded by right and wrong. “Don’t do that, do this, or that was a wrong choice, try it like this.” While there is a validity stripping away what’s not useful and going forward with what is useful, it can make them think that it’s all just about being correct, or whatever this coach, or Susan Graham’s version of correct is. It’s all about pleasing other people rather than tapping into their real artistic centers.
I worked with one of our young mezzos on a Handel aria from an opera that I had performed but had not thought about in years. As she was singing, I was transported back to that moment in the opera performing onstage and remembered everything I thought and felt as that character. I could offer some of those thoughts, possibilities and ideas to a young singer who is working on an aria in an opera they may not have performed yet and might not know exactly where the character is at that precise moment in the opera. Within an hour of working on this aria, the young mezzo was physically invested and psychologically more invested, more emotionally invested, and it showed in what she was doing, it showed in her performance of the piece, and it was so exciting to see her imagination fire on all cylinders. And it happens with every single one of the young artists.
BRAVO: That is the joy of a mentors in many ways, to have an impact on young students and to witness that change I would imagine to be incredibly rewarding.
SG: It’s what every teacher throughout history has said: When the lightbulb goes off, it makes everything worthwhile. That’s absolutely true. It’s just something I didn’t think I’d experience in such a visceral way and with great satisfaction.
BRAVO: Did you have mentors that impacted your own career?
SG: Christa Ludwig, Frederica von Stade. Early on I was lucky to be in a Falstaff production with Marilyn Horne, so just to go through an entire rehearsal process with her when I was young was a kind of master class. When I was in Merola, I won a grant to work on Octavian with Christa Ludwig so that was an experience. She remained in touch throughout my career. In fact, when she received the Opera News Award several years ago, I got to present it to her. She’s always been an inspiration and an idol of mine.
BRAVO: Do you have any concrete plans for the next group of Young Artists?
SG: Nothing particular. It’s a getting to know you. I am in Santa Fe this summer, and next week I will do a mezzo master class at Santa Fe Opera. As I look at the roster I can see some students who will be joining us, and others we heard in auditions but weren’t able to take. What I’ve noticed recently is the network of young singers in America which is something that, as I became an older artist, I was not that connected to. But now, in this role, I am super connected to this next generation.
BRAVO: You seem to have developed a certain take-no-prisoners attitude to your career right now. Is that a correct perception?
SG: I feel lucky that I’m at a point where I don’t have anything else to prove. I had very lovely success in my career. And I’ve been very lucky and worked with the most amazing people in the world. I’ve had great fun finding my way through many types of roles, and I want to continue doing that. Whether that leads me into music theatre, straight plays, cabaret, who knows? But I’m open to it.
BRAVO: You made your LA debut in a concert with LACO in 1994, but your LAO debut was in 2005.
SG: I made my LA Opera stage debut in L'incoronazione di Poppea, singing the title role. I love that production, and it had such a great cast: Frederica von Stade, Kurt Streit, David Daniels, Jill Grove, Nicholas Phan…The production was so spare, abstract and awesome. I loved working opposite Kurt Streit as Nero. I did Poppea several times and always insisted that Nero had to be a male because I felt like I had done so many pants roles myself that no woman could be more butch than me. I had to have a man.
BRAVO: So how’s life in Burbank?
SG: I love it! I am now from LA. This new chapter is about the other new role in my life, my family. The reason I live in LA is my family. That’s what happens when you marry a Californian—you gotta be from LA because they aren’t going anywhere. I’ve got a husband and two stepchildren and a house. As a matter of fact, we just put in a new swimming pool so I’ve earned my California stripes. What’s not to love about Southern California?
As Didon in Les Troyens
COVER PHOTO CREDIT: LA Opera/Lawrence Ho