by Daniel Hathaway
One of the most versatile mezzo-sopranos in the business, Susan Graham will visit the Baldwin Wallace Art Song Festival for a recital with pianist Bradley Moore on Thursday evening, May 26 in Gamble Auditorium. The recital will interleave songs from Robert Schumann’s Frauenliebe und -leben with pieces by other composers ranging from Grieg, Strauss, and Tchaikovsky to Ravel, Poulenc, and Granados.
“It’s a fantastic program,” Graham said in a recent telephone conversation from San Francisco, where she was singing Berlioz’s La Mort de Cléopâtre with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony. She said that all the credit for devising the many-layered Schumann musical torte goes to her longtime collaborator, pianist Malcolm Martineau.
“Malcolm is so inventive and so resourceful with vocal repertoire — I call him the ‘Malcolmpaedia,’” she said. “We had been talking for a long time about performing Frauenliebe und -leben. Some people think it’s old-fashioned and don’t sing it very often, but ironically, both Renée Fleming and I are touring the piece this season. I hope we’re not wearing the same dress!”
Martineau’s approach is part of what makes Graham’s performances unique. “He proposed taking the cycle apart and augmenting it with additional songs to further illustrate the story as it unfolds,” she said. “It turns out that people just love it, even in places where you think the Liederabend purists might be upset that we’re not segueing from one Schumann song to the next. They even found it captivating in Vienna!”
The cycle includes two Schumann songs from other sources, pieces Robert Schumann wrote for Clara as a wedding present that depict a bride talking to her mother on her own wedding day.
Susan Graham is looking forward to catching up with her old friend, Nancy Maultsby, who teaches voice at Baldwin Wallace. And speaking of teaching, Graham will coach some of the Festival’s ten singer-pianist teams herself in a master class on Friday, May 27 from 2:00 pm to 5:00 pm in BW’s chamber music hall. “That’s always a bit daunting at first, but once I get into it, I find it quite enjoyable. I’ve done master classes at places like Stanford University, where they don’t have a dedicated vocal program, so I’ve had people who are designing medical machinery and driverless cars singing French songs for me. It’s astonishing.”
What does Graham try to accomplish in master classes? “I focus on interpretation and expression, and it’s my goal to help give the young singers permission to unlock what they feel and what they might want to express in the course of a song. I want them to shed their academic shackles and just go for it. I had a young man last week, very sweet, probably 21 years old, who was singing the Tarquinius aria from Britten’s Rape of Lucretia. It’s supposed to be very menacing, but he was singing it very straightforwardly. It was a challenge to find the language that helped him unlock something more than just being correct.
“I tried to get very specific and tap into his rage by having him imagine someone who had really angered and upset him. We finally saw something in his face — and then you always hear it in the voice. That’s when it gets exciting. Nine times out of ten, technical issues like breathing and support get resolved when the body becomes engaged. I’m endlessly fascinated by what makes people tick, so it’s like a mini-therapy session for me to get inside someone’s head and see how to ignite a certain thought or feeling. And as any teacher will tell you, there’s nothing more satisfying than seeing results.”
She added that it’s also important to put her subjects at ease. “I remember when I was young and found master classes to be really scary. Not only do you have some singer that you’ve looked up to and admired staring you in the face, but you’ve also got an audience out there. So I try to make them forget about the audience and just pull it out of them. Sometimes I throw ideas at them while they’re singing, just to subliminally get inside their heads. It’s a fun game.”
For her coaching sessions, Susan Graham can draw on a career’s worth of experience playing roles in operas ranging from Monteverdi to Jack Heggie (who wrote Sister Helen Prejean in Dead Man Walking specifically for her), from Fledermaus to Lulu. She even made her musical theater debut recently at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris as Anna in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The King and I, the same production that recently played at Chicago’s Lyric Opera.
“That was really an anomaly, but also a blast — and very, very hard work,” she said. “I have a newfound respect for the people who are hoofing it eight shows a week. I was double cast and I didn’t do any matinees, but even then, I was icing my knees and my ankles during intermissions. Vocally it wasn’t a problem at all, but the costumes were very heavy, and there was lots of kneeling and getting up. I think that chapter of my book will be called ‘Joints of a Certain Age,’ but it was great, great fun. The kids were terrific, and all my fellow cast members were wonderful.”
Published on ClevelandClassical.com May 24, 2016.
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