Susan Graham in Naples: Music makes more demands on singers, audiences, too, now
You want Susan Graham as your best friend. And that's even though she occasionally dresses up in a man's tux and claims she's a prince.
Of course, you'd want her at your parties, where everyone gathered around the piano would stop singing to listen as soon as she uttered the first musical syllable in that clean, crystal voice. You'd love her personable, sincere and passionate style, and if your middle school even dreams about cutting its orchestra budget, you'd bring her as spokeswoman.
But her job requires a few, well, strange uniforms. As America's best known mezzo-soprano, Graham has gotten a lot of what opera calls "trouser roles," playing high-voiced males or teenage boys. She's been a prince (Orlofsky in "Die Fledermaus), a count (Octavian in "Der Rosenkavalier") an oversexed teen page (Cherubini in "La Nozze de Figaro") and doubtlessly a few other guys, in the world's best opera houses.
But she's played queens and nuns and young girls as well. Naples will see the feminine role when Graham debuts here Thursday in the final Masterworks Series concert. She took time to answer questions about her upcoming performance, the dilemmas she sees for young opera singers and the role she'll never get, but loves.
Naples Daily News: How was the work you're singing with the Naples Philharmonic, Ernest Chausson's "Poème de l'amour et de la mer," chosen?
Susan Graham: I think it was offered to me, and I'd sung it several times before, and I just love it. So I was happy to say yes.
"(It's) like Berlioz' 'Les nuits d'été,' which is his iconic song cycle; it means "Summer Nights." You think it's going to be this happy little song about summer nights ... this magic poem about love and the sea, but all those song cycles are death and separation.
But its music is so beautiful. The Chausson is so romantically beautiful and actually the poem. its extremely sensual. The images are so powerful — and also, I really just love the music.
NDN: You've just agreed to extend your contract as artistic adviser to the Los Angeles Opera Domingo-Coburn-Stein Young Artist Program. What do you find you need to tell young opera singers about priorities today?
Graham: They tell me. They are the ones who are experiencing, and have been coming up through, the grad or even the undergrad schooling in today's market. They know what the demands of the market are better than I do.
When I started out 25 years ago, the demands on singers were very different and the support was very different. ... There was a lot of money in the arts. There was a lot of money in recording companies. We had all that at our fingertips.
We had a kind of industry support that I think they have to fight harder for now.
The financial landscape for the arts in general is very different from when I started.
The thing that thing that changed the most — and it's not something that would impact them at this level — was in the recording industry. When I started out in the late '80s, and I was sort of on the tail end of it, the record companies still had massive advertising budgets. And it was the record companies that made stars.
You'd walk into Tower Records (a one-time famous New York record store) and there would be your face on a 6-foot poster up on the wall, advertising your latest record.
Nowadays, you can't count on more than one hand the number of record companies that sell classical music, because records have gone out. ... Everyone plays digital, and actual physical packaging doesn't, for the most part, doesn't exist any more.
One of the things young artists face that we didn't face is social media. And it is a huge impact, because it is their No. 1 way of promoting themselves in the way we had record companies and publicists to do. Young singers today don't have access to that, so they have to be very self-promoting-savvy.
It's constant and they have to work very hard, because their managers have varying levels of support that they're able to give to these young artists. So they have to do a lot of self-promotion and most of that falls into social media, which is both a blessing and a curse.
The blessing part is it gets your message out to a lot of people. I know some well-established artists who use Facebook to announce their next performance and get people to come and buy tickets. And they build huge followings.
The curse part is it can go very wrong, because you open yourself up to public scrutiny in a way that never was the case before. People on Facebook, on Instagram, on Twitter, whatever their drug of choice is — anybody can have access to you. Anybody can go on there and criticize you, anybody can be a troll and say horrible, horrible things about you. ...
If somebody doesn't like one thing you said one time, anyone can go on there and have access to you. And it happens. It happens to all of us.
NDN: So you don't use a lot of social media to promote your events?
Graham: I'm not going to tell people to love me. If you love me for my singing, more to the better, but I'm not about putting on a funny hat on Instagram and getting people to think I'm amusing and come to my concert for that. I'm a dinosaur! What can I tell you? I'm a dinosaur. (laughs)
NDN: You've said in interviews that artists want new music and audiences do, too. But sometimes they seem resistant. Are there contemporary composers you'd recommend to them?
Graham: I think the idea is you have to go in without expecting it to sound like Beethoven. Be open to something new. be open to the experience of a different sound world.
My tastes are pretty modern. I've sung a lot of contemporary opera, but the music has to appeal to me. I won't do something just for the sake of, oh, it's new so I'll do it. I still have to love it. And in terms of being a dinosaur I'm not going way out on a limb and doing something that doesn't suit my voice or my aesthetics, or my musical tastes.
I like to make beautiful sounds, while I still can. so therefore my tastes tend more toward John Harbison, you know, "The Great Gatsby," and Jake Hegge, of course. Jake Hegge has written a lot of things for me, like "Dead Man Walking."
I love his music. Some people think it's like movie music only for the theater because it's tuneful and emotional. And I don't see anything wrong with that.
I don't think people should be scared off by the fact that the word contemporary is part of the description.
If you're expecting it to be like Mozart or Beethoven or Brahms, it probably won't be. Sometimes you just let it wash over you and it's a beautiful experience, or a new experience — or something you hate and you won't ever listen to again. (Laughs).
NDN: You've worked with so many characters in opera and seen so much of it. Is there a role — male or female — that, given the vocal abilities for day, you would want to play?
Graham: Tosca! It's not written for my voice. I'd never be able to do it. Iv'e always watched those with great jealousy and envy and thought, ah, I'd like to do that. It's just the greatest music, and the arc of her story is so wonderful. And I just love the scene with Scarpia; she kills the bad guy. She's a power figure.
If you go
What: Naples Philharmonic's final Masterworks Series concert, featuring mezzo-soprano Susan Graham performing Ernest Chausson's "Poème de l’amour et de la mer." Plus the Naples Philharmonic, Andrey Boreyko conducting. Also on the program, Wagner — "Prelude and Liebestod" and Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4
Where: Hayes Hall, Artis—Naples, 5833 Pelican Bay Blvd., Naples
When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, May 3 and 4
To buy: Box office, 239-597-1900 or artisnaples.org