American singers come from everywhere these days. There are fine voice teachers to be found in most cities of any size, so it is not surprising to find a singer with a big career from Midland.
That's of course mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, an operatic superstar who will be returning the Texas—this time Dallas—as the eagerly anticipated headliner for the Dallas Opera Spring Gala on March 9. There are still some tickets available for the performance here.
This is quite the elegant affair, by the way. It starts with cocktails and hors d'oeuvres in the lobby of the Winspear Opera House. Then Graham will perform a recital in the Margaret McDermott Performance Hall. Afterwards, there will be a dinner served on the Shannon and Ted Skokos Stage in the opera house itself. This will be an appetizer for Graham's long-awaited Dallas Opera debut in the upcoming production of Dominick Argento's The Aspern Papers.
Graham is proud of her West Texas roots. The Midland-Odessa region has a lot going on. The symphony is celebrating its 50th season. Both the University of Texas at the Permian Basin and the two-year Odessa College have fine music departments and there are many excellent private teachers for any instrument or voice. She didn't go very far for college. She enrolled at Texas Tech in Lubbock, another school with an outstanding music department. However, her transition to graduate school at the Manhattan School of Music was more difficult because she hadn't pursued her studies in a major city with deeper cultural roots.
"When I arrived I felt like I was way behind the curve, culturally speaking," she says. "My classmate had grown up going to the Met and all of the other smaller opera companies that are in New York City and the surrounding area. Except for my summer trips to Santa Fe, I hadn't seen all that many operas, besides those I was in. However, I had landed every singing job there was to have in Lubbock, so it was time to move on."
"I went to the Manhattan School of Music because I got a scholarship—but mostly because John Crosby, who ran the Santa Fe Opera, was on the faculty. I hoped that it would be my ticket back there as a singer. Well, that didn't exactly work out. I auditioned for Santa Fe and was soundly rejected. Twice. Once in 1986 and again in 1987."
The game-changer for her was her acceptance into the Merola Opera Program, an intensive training ground for young singers that works in collaboration with the San Francisco Opera. After that, it was straight up for the talented mezzo. She was a recipient of the Schwabacher Award from the Merola Program and then came the big prize – being named a winner in the Metropolitan Opera's National Council Auditions.
Graham is a champion of the French repertoire—both the songs and the operas. In fact, she made her international debut at Covent Garden in 1994 in Massenet's Chérubin. She is a champion of living comparers and has created roles in operas such as John Harbison's The Great Gatsby (Jordan Baker), Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking (Sister Helen Prejean) and Tobias Picker's An American Tragedy (Sondra Finchley).
She is also well known for the so-called pants roles, such as Cherubino in Mozart's Marriage of Figaro. However, the one that is connected with her name is Octavian in Richard Strauss' Rosenkavalier. The big wrinkle in both of these roles is that, at one point, they both have to pretend to be a girl. So, we have a woman playing the part of a young man playing a girl.
"Actually, it is quite hard to figure out what would this boy think of how to play a girl," she says. "That is a question I ponder. Both characters are different. Cherubino is younger and by nature, at 13 or 14 years old, still in that androgynous phase. He is meant to be adored, and the object of every ones affections. He would act up more in a dress. Octavian is young, but an aristocrat and he would think differently than Cherubino about how a girl should act. Directors have thoughts about this too. It is always different when I play these roles."
She has been on the road with Rosenkavalier for quite a while, singing it with Renée Fleming, another superstar, in major opera houses around the globe. The two of them are just about perfect in the roles, but it's tough to keep it fresh at every performance.
"In 2001, Renée and I had sung countless Rosenkavaliers all over the world. By the time you get to the final trio, one of the highlights of the entire show, sometimes you are tired," she says. "It was the middle of the week at the Royal Opera in London and my brain was on overtime as we approached that trio. Just then, I saw in a balcony seat near the stage, an older man who was leaning over the railing with his eyes wide and obviously transported by the music and the situation on stage. It was absolutely inspiring and I sang my heart out that night. So, I always think, in the back of my mind, that someone out there in the opera house is experiencing this music for the first time and they deserve my very best efforts."
So what does she think when seeing another performer in a role that she created?
"Dead Man Walking was an emotional and life changing event for me. It also came at a critical moment with the death of my father. When there is a role so powerful, you do take ownership of it. You put a part of your soul in it and, somehow, that piece of you stays with it," she says. "Other things like Great Gatsby were not really as personal. American Tragedy was a little more involving but still didn't have the same impact. I have been asked to sing Dean Man Walking since, but it was such a gut-wrenching time, I've been afraid to revisit it."
Recently, opera singers have been crossing over to Broadway. Most famously, Deborah Voight sang a production of Annie Get Your Gun, straight off her portrayal of another gun-slinging role at the Met, that of Minnie in The Girl of the Golden West by Puccini.
"I always thought it would be fun to sing in a production of Kiss Me, Kate," she says.
I'd better brush up my Shakespeare.