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Cheryl North Interviews Susan Graham

ANG Newspapers Classical Music Column from February 2, 2007, under title:
Busy Susan Graham Brings Her Talents to San Francisco

The voice that rose above the rhythmic clickity-clack on the other end of the phone line was uncommonly focused and had a definite luminosity about it.

No surprise here � it was world-class mezzo soprano Susan Graham responding in her gracefully confident voice to my slightly nervous "Good morning" at the onset of our interview last week. It was indeed morning on my California end of the line, but for her, traveling on the train from Washington, D.C., to New York City, it was half past noon. The hard-working diva was en route to sing a recital of French art songs a couple of days later at Carnegie Hall.

Whereas her accompanist for the Carnegie Hall concert was Malcolm Martineau, arguably one of the classical music world's best piano accompanists, her accompanists next week in San Francisco will be Maestro Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony, the best symphony orchestra on the West Coast.

Graham is scheduled to perform Hector Berlioz's Les Nuits d'�t� at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday and at 6:30 p.m. Friday at Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., in San Francisco. Other works on the all-French program will be Berlioz's Roman Carnival Overture; Debussy's Nocturnes; and Dukas' The Sorcerer's Apprentice.

She has been widely acclaimed for her "infinitely varied, perfectly focused and burnished bronze voice" as well as for her intelligent, musical way with French art songs. And indeed, her recent Carnegie Hall concert included a pack of them: songs by Bizet, Franck, Faure, Debussy, Chausson, Duparc, Ravel, Poulenc and many more.

"French song has always appealed to me in a rather sensual way," she said over the steady hum of rail over track going on in the background. "The sensitive scene painting that the French composers utilized in their songs � the tonal colors, the imagery � I find it all incredibly rewarding to sing."

Berlioz's Les Nuits d'�t�," which is usually translated as "Songs of Summer Nights," had its origins with a set of poems titled La comedie de la mort, written by Berlioz's friend Theophile Gautier in 1838. In 1840-'41, Berlioz set two of the more light-hearted poems and four rather sultry ones to music, giving them his new, Shakespeare-tinged title. The ravishingly Romantic Le Spectre de la Rose is the best known of the set of six.

The statuesque Graham, who looks like the quintessential All-American girl with her bright eyes, stylish new hairdo, and broad smile, was born in Roswell, N.M., and raised in Midland, Texas. She is perhaps most familiar to local audiences for her riveting portrayal of Sister Helen Prejean in the world premier of Jake Heggie's opera Dean Man Walking in the fall of 2000 by the San Francisco Opera.

However, Heggie's opera was not her first musical portrayal of a Catholic nun. It was when she played Maria during her senior year in Midland's Lee High School production of The Sound of Music that her resolve to be a professional singer was born.

In fact, Graham met Julie Andrews, the show's definitive Maria, backstage after a Dead Man Walking performance. After trading compliments, Susan took the opportunity to tell Julie that she "was the first nun I ever played on stage."

According to Graham, the women in her family � including an older sister and her mother � are all musical. Her mother played the piano by ear very well and her older sister was the first person to give Susan piano lessons. Her only brother is more athletic, like her late father.

"I got my musical ability from my mother and my lung power from my dad. He was a coach for a team and could holler so loud that he could be heard across a big field," she said.

Graham has put both her musical ability and her good lungs to good use. After graduating from high school, she attended Texas Tech University to study singing. Singing classes, however, required participants to perform in the college opera productions, either as soloists or members of the chorus. After finally getting a taste of opera, she says that she "fell in love" with the art form.

Soon after, she was snatched up into San Francisco Opera's Merola Program. Upon graduation, she launched into the mezzo-soprano roles of Cherubino in Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, Octavian in Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier, and other trouser roles. Now, she is master of a far wider repertory and is equally at ease with French, German, Italian or American Opera. She has earned acclaim as a "singing actress" for or her fine-tuned performances in leading roles in the operas of Monteverdi, Gluck, Handel, Verdi, Barber, and such modern Americans as Tobias Picker and John Harbison.

Graham has been honored by the French government with its highest award for performers, the Commandeur dans l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres; has garnered a Grammy; earned accolades for numerous recordings and song recitals; and has made appearances with most of the world's major symphony orchestras and opera companies.

But in typical all-American-girl character, she is thrilled that Midland has designated Sept. 5 as "Susan Graham Day." Graham is also a good writer and has included some insightful and witty notes to her public that appear on her Web site, one iteration of which is the continuing "Letters from Libby," her beloved 17[1/2]-year-old black poodle. Libby's latest reveals that, although she misses traveling everywhere with her "Noisy One" (Susan), she is enjoying her well-earned retirement with Susan's mother and stepfather in Midland.

Susan, too, says she is surviving the retirement of her former canine traveling companion.

"I love animals. If I hadn't gone into singing, I would probably have enjoyed a whole career working with animals," she said.

When I asked what she hoped audiences, colleagues and critics would say about her at her own retirement gala several decades from now, she mused that music's ultimate goal is to foster communication from one person to another, and that music can connect us as fellow humans and make us feel for, and with, each other.

"I guess I just want people to be able to say about me, that I sang the truth," she said with a fervor that caused her voice to soar well above the hum of wheels over rails.

Susan Graham with Cheryl and Warner North backstage after her concert on February 16, 2007

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