Opera star Susan Graham was born in Roswell, N.M., a town better known for little green men than for classical music.
She spent her teen years in Midland, Texas, where there’s more oil than opera.
Yet today, “America’s favorite mezzo” – as the influential Gramophone magazine dubbed her – is a fixture at New York’s Metropolitan. She’s also taken the stages of London’s Covent Garden, Milan’s La Scala, and opera houses in Paris and Vienna, among many others.
She also enjoys bipartisan support; she was chosen to sing at George W. Bush’s second inauguration and also at the funeral of Sen. Edward Kennedy.
Graham is no stranger to local audiences, through her appearances with the Houston Grand Opera, most recently in “Die Fledermaus,” in 2013.
However, she’ll be making her debut with Houston’s Mercury orchestra Saturday at the Wortham Theater Center. Graham will sing arias by Henry Purcell, George Friderick Handel and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – interspersed with instrumental works by these composers – under the baton of Antoine Plante.
Speaking from Santa Fe, N.M., the 55-year-old mezzo-soprano talked about her distinguished career and her upcoming appearance.
Q: Where do you live these days?
A: That’s such a hard question! I live in Santa Fe, and New York and Los Angeles. But mostly, I live out of my suitcase.
Q: What was it like growing up as an aspiring opera singer in Midland?
A: I wasn’t an aspiring opera singer then; I was just a kid who liked to climb trees and ride bikes.
I took piano lessons from an early age, and that was my main musical focus until I got to high school. I got serious about singing when I was 16, and I started taking voice lessons so I could get into the Texas All-State Choir.
The culmination of my high school career was singing Maria in “The Sound of Music” in my senior year. That was when I was bitten by the theatrical bug. Where I came from, people assumed I would go on to Broadway – that was the music people knew. But I decided that opera would be a bigger accomplishment because you have to study languages, and different musical styles. So I set my sights on conquering opera, and it’s worked OK!
Q: What’s it like being “America’s favorite mezzo?”
A: I have to pinch myself any time I see any of those accolades. I think, “Who is that? Is it me? It must be someone else.” But it’s that life that I have, and it’s been a wonderful experience to be a singer, going on 25 years.
Q: Did you select the repertoire for your upcoming concert with Mercury?
A: Yes, they’re all favorites of mine. Singing baroque music is dear to my heart: There’s nothing like it for purity of expression and wide-open emotion.
We have a variety: the slow, poignant heartbreak ones and the fast, ecstatic, pyrotechnical ones. And we have some Mozart in there, too, which stretches the chronological boundaries of the baroque. But a little Mozart is never unwelcome.
Q: You have a wide-ranging repertoire. But is there a common thread, something that you look for in an operatic role, irrespective of the historical era?
A: The music is paramount. It’s very hard for me to identify with a character if I can’t get into the music written for her. And I can’t really wrap my brain around certain kinds of contemporary music. If it doesn’t speak to me musically, I can’t identify with the character.
And dramatically speaking, a character has to have some kind of appeal for me, some kind of drama or conflict. The ones that I gravitate toward usually have something I can sink my teeth into.
Q: You’ve got some roles at the Met later this year – “Lulu” and “Die Fledermaus.” Has the thrill of being on stage in a grand opera changed for you over the years?
A: It changes all the time. Now, the opera stage is a place where I feel very, very at home.
I just finished “Les Troyens,” the grandest of all French operas, in San Francisco. That, for me, was a new kind of experience, marked by a kind of fearlessness I hadn’t known before. It made me free to enjoy myself because I didn’t feel the pressure to prove anything anymore. I’m just happy that I’m still in the game – Lord willing and the creek don’t rise!
Q: What do you do in your spare time?
A: I am a “quasi stepmother” to 9-year-old twins, my boyfriend’s children. That keeps me pretty busy. I’m learning about motherhood through the side door because I never had children of my own.
I also enjoy jewelry making, which I took up a couple of years ago. And I love trying to remain as physically active as I can. I like to rent a bicycle in every town I visit. Every time I’m in Houston I rent one, and that’s my transportation.
© Colin Eatock 2015