Susan Graham: Interview
She's referred to as 'The Noisy One' in 'Libby‘s Travels' on the web. Libby chronicled The Noisy One's globe-trotting career and even risqué encounters with a blasé eye and wet nose until recently. 'Arthritic fingers,' explains The Noisy One. 'She's 17, after all.'
Libby is a dog, currently looked after by The Noisy One’s mother in Texas. ‘She would have loved the Proms,’ wistfully observes The Noisy One, aka Libby’s owner (and amanuensis), Susan Graham. Born in a state where a flying saucer landed, the mezzo-soprano grew up in Bush’s home town. The ultimate surreal note is provided by her brilliance playing boys, opera’s ‘trouser-roles’. Tall, broad-shouldered, long-thighed, and with a wickedly humorous glint in her eye, she’s a superb Cherubino (‘Figaro’), the ideal toy-boy Octavian (‘Rosenkavalier’). Familiar, and adored, from Covent Garden appearances and recordings, she makes her belated Proms debut on Tuesday with the superb Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester. No rangy boyishness here: just Chausson’s swooningly Gallic sensuousness.
Graham’s one of the famous non-francophones who excel in French music, ‘like Frederica von Stade and Felicity Lott – she considers herself as semi-French as I do… I was always attracted to French music as a young pianist. It became all the more thrilling when introduced to texts as a singer: Berlioz’s “Nuits d’été”, obviously, but also Debussy, Ravel, Fauré…’ It’s notoriously hard to impress the natives in their own language, but Graham points out, ‘It’s a lot harder to speak than to sing well. French people are shocked when I talk… I explain when you sing it’s easier to be exact with vowels – I ask if you expect me to speak even English the way they sing it.’
Mischief takes over as she attributes her francophilia to ‘growing up in deserts. New Mexico and west Texas are great stimulants to imagining a land of elegance and sophistication. I loved pretending I’m French.’ She giggles. ‘There’s psychosis in all of us.’ What does she consider herself now, I ask over the phone. ‘I’m lounging on a flagstone terrace under the sun, New Mexico mountains in the distance…’ She sounds quite happy to be back in the desert.
It makes a break from such world music centres as Paris and Salzburg (her performance as Gluck’s ‘Iphigénie en Tauride’ with Ivor Bolton is coming to London next year), not to mention the Albert Hall, the atmospheric, acoustically dodgy but much-loved seat of the Proms. Though Tuesday sees her first appearance at a Prom, ‘I’ve been in the audience.The acoustics are beyond my control,’ she laughs. ‘I just expect the unexpected.’
Like all international singers, Graham’s planning far ahead, awkward when she knows ‘five or six years out and I’ll be in another decade.’ How to take into account the inevitable changes in a voice? ‘We’re always on the lookout for something new – I can’t sing Cherubino forever. I’m exploring Handel – I’d love to do Xerxes; Gluck’s Alceste; I’ve just added Poppea [Monteverdi] to my repertoire, stretching boundaries.’
Maturity is bringing vocal bonuses. ‘My voice isn’t necessarily deepening in range: it’s getting easier at both ends, the top isn’t diminished. That’s not to say I’ll be offering Tosca – I’m not a fully fledged soprano.’ But Beethoven’s Fidelio ‘has been mentioned’. And of course, the disguised heroine spends the opera in boys’ clothes, something of a security blanket… Other pet projects include Charlotte in Massenet’s ‘Werther’ and possibly exchanging Octavian’s breeches for his lover the Marschallin’s hooped skirts in ‘Rosenkavalier’. There’s noise in The Noisy One yet; creamy, rich, sensuous, witty, a mix of native Texan and acquired Gallicism. Irresistible.
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