Almost 20 years ago, as a member of San Francisco Opera’s famed Merola training program, Texas-born mezzo soprano Susan Graham stood onstage awaiting the announcement of who had won the coveted Schwabacher Award.
“It was like the Miss America pageant,” she recalls. “I remember how I felt as they read the names. As I heard my friends winning fourth place, third and second place, I kept wondering who was left to win the big prize. I never thought it might be me. When they called out my name, I was in shock. That was probably the first time I thought my singing could amount to something big.”
Big? Yes. Less than a year later, in 1988, Graham won the Metropolitan Opera Competition. Soprano Renée Fleming and tenor Ben Heppner were the other winners.
Her career soon began to follow what she terms “a steady and fortuitous progression.” After singing the Second Lady in the Met’s 1991 production of “The Magic Flute,” she worked in Europe and performed a series of roles at Santa Fe.
The leap to the top came in 1995, when she was asked to substitute for Anne Sophie von Otter as Octavian in the Met’s opening night performance of “Der Rosenkavalier” and critics waxed ecstatic.
As much as operas by Mozart and Richard Strauss continue to play a part in Graham’s career, it is the French repertoire with which she is most closely associated. Virtually 10 years after recording Hector Berlioz’s moving collection of six songs, “Les Nuits d’été,” she returns to Davies Symphony Hall to perform the romantic half-hour cycle with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony.
“The French repertoire attracts me because of its combination of sensuality, subtlety and harmonic language,” she explains. “I’m also a harmony junkie. The French language has a sort of richness and elegance to it. I don’t want to disparage other languages or cultures, but it’s like the difference between a very delicate French sauce on a beautiful piece of fish or a Bolognese. Italian music, for example, has an immediate emotional impact that’s very powerful, but it doesn’t have the subtlety of French music. It’s a temperamental affinity more than anything else.”
That is why so many of her recordings, including a live Salzburg performance of Gluck’s “Iphegenie en Tauride” (which she performs with San Francisco Opera in June), reflect her temperamental strengths. When Graham recorded “Les Nuits d’été” in 1997, she was just starting to sing the piece.
She says, “I’ve performed it an awful lot since then, and I’ve lived an awful lot since then. These songs are so poignant. There’s a theme of loss and death, certainly in the interior songs. You live 10 years and you’re inevitably going to experience some loss and death and pain and joy. I feel a little more ripe for the part now.”
IF YOU GO
Susan Graham with the San Francisco Symphony
Where: Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday; 6:30 p.m. Friday
Tickets: $31 to $114
Contact: (415) 864-6000 or www.sfsymphony.org
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