American mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, who is without doubt one of the most gifted singers ever to appear on the operatic stage, returns to Covent Garden on 10 September 2007 after an absence of more than three years to sing the title role in a new production of Gluck's Iphigénie en Tauride. For Graham, it is part of a season that is almost entirely devoted to French music, and - aside from her charm, wit and searing intellect - what comes across in my interview with her is an overwhelming enthusiasm for the repertoire.
'It captured my imagination early on as a young student of singing. I was even attracted to the piano music of Debussy and Ravel - I always loved the French Impressionistic harmonies. Then, some of the first French songs I studied were by Debussy, and the overlay of text made it even more appealing to me. That's not just to say that French Impressionistic music is my favourite. I came into it both through the language and through the expression. I have a wonderful French coach in New York called Denise Massé. She's guided me through nearly all of my French recordings. It's been a wonderful journey to try to understand the many complex subtleties of the language and bring that out expressively through the music.
'Also, there's a kind of restraint in French culture, in their cuisine, even - nothing is in-your-face and over-the-top - and that's something that appeals to me. I appreciate the almost 'classical' parameters of it.'
Does she regard herself as an ambassador for French music? 'Well, it's almost developed that way! It's not just this year, but my whole career has been centred round it: I've sung tons of Berlioz, lots of Gluck, plenty of Massenet. I'm doing a concert tour of French music, including a recital at the Wigmore Hall [on 9 February 2008]. The whole programme is French! It's twenty-four songs by twenty-two composers, a hundred years of French song. It runs the gamut from Bizet to Poulenc. I put the programme together very painstakingly with my wonderful accompanist, Malcolm Martineau, and it's a journey through the French art song. People often think of that as one category, but there's so much variety within it. It's wonderful to unlock a lot of hidden treasures.
'I just love singing French music. Some of it probably stems back to my childhood in a decidedly un-French background: I grew up in New Mexico and Texas, and that seemed about as far away from French culture as one could possibly get. I grew up fantasising about life beyond those horizons, and the most elegant and exciting places I could think of usually had something to do with an Eiffel Tower!' she laughs. 'French music is quite underrated, compared to the Italian and German traditions, and there's a subtlety there that I love to bring out. Also, the natural way that my voice sits - the weight and timbre of it - is given to the lyricism that is inherent in the French repertoire.'
Iphigénie en Tauride has not been performed at the Royal Opera House in over thirty years and is probably unfamiliar to many London operagoers, so Graham is keen to discuss the background to the opera and the new production. Gluck is often known as one of the great reformers of opera, and I ask her to describe how the reforms might relate to Iphigénie. 'We do have arias but they're not particularly showpieces - that's what his reform was largely about. He moved out of the writing of operas just to show off a singer's talents, and he was committed to the storytelling element of opera. That's very evident in Iphigénie. It starts off with a big storm scene, then Iphigénie moves on to recounting a dream she's had in which all her family is slaughtered (and, of course, it all turns out to be true, we discover later in the opera). It's through-composed for the most part, and although we have arias, it's the recitative that propels the story forward constantly. It's very dramatic - it's all recitativo accompagnato, there's no dry recitative in it. It's all orchestrated, so the drama and the tension are there through the entire opera.
'When I first did the piece in 2000 at the Salzburg Festival, I was so taken with the real element of drama that is in the music. And in these performances, that comes out particularly: the production by Robert Carsen is stunningly arresting and visually powerful, and in conjunction with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and Ivor Bolton, it's a very compelling experience. We just finished a couple of Sitzprobes yesterday and it was so dramatic with the underscoring of the OAE playing early instruments. They help to bring out the drama in a very authentic way; the fiery texture that those instruments have complements the story very well.'
Robert Carsen is both a popular and a controversial director - his production of Bernstein's musical Candide (that will be seen at ENO next June) caused a minor uproar in Milan earlier in the year, for instance. What's his take on the Iphigénie story? 'It's modern, it's about storytelling, and there are no gimmicks. It doesn't make fun of itself at all. It's very serious, but it's very essential and distilled. It's about the essence of the psychology of my character and of Orest [Iphigénie's brother] and how the two of them meet up again after years of separation, both physically and psychologically. It's also about how the quintessential dysfunctional family can shape relationships and people, the damage that occurs, and what can be salvaged from it. Really, this whole production is a journey through the mind of Iphigénie - so much of it happens in her head. You have to think of this young girl who, at the moment of marriage to Achilles, the most powerful warrior in the Trojan wars, is snatched away from the altar, presumably sacrificed by her father, but snatched away by the huntress Diana and taken away to another place. What would that do to her? Robert Carsen and I have discussed this many times. It leaves her in a permanent state of limbo between her love for Achilles, her love for her father, her betrayal by her father, and her separation from Achilles. Her whole development as a woman is truncated. Does she stop there and remain a fourteen year old all her life? Who knows? Does she just progress in this 'arrested development' way? These are questions we explore in the production, and affect the way I express myself physically, musically and emotionally.
'But the bottom line is that the storytelling is the most important thing in the production. And I think the star dressing room should be given to the dancers and the lighting designer! The dancers are a kind of Greek chorus who tell the story - they play the Priestesses on stage, they tell the 'back' story, they are the nightmare - they're everything. And the lighting is very stark to reflect the black and white images in my head and in my history. I can't stress enough how visually exciting the piece is. I'm really excited about it! This is the third time I've done the production - I did it in Chicago last autumn when it was new, in San Francisco earlier in the summer, and now here. To Robert Carsen's great credit, just because we've done the production before doesn't mean everything is set in stone. We've changed so much for this revival, because London is special - we've reworked some scenes to make it even more cohesive and to enhance the storytelling even more. We want it to be special for you!'
One of the big draws of the forthcoming performances is the presence in the cast of English baritone Simon Keenlyside - a favourite at the House and a favourite with Susan Graham too, it seems. 'Simon and I have worked together for years and it's always a joy to see him again. We haven't worked together in a while and it was wonderful on the first day of rehearsals to come back in and pick up where we left off. He is so brilliant in this role. Simon has such depth and such a very vivid inner life. I watched him in rehearsal today; the whole opera is a mad scene for Orest on one level, and Simon is also a little mad, so it works out very well! He's one of the people in our profession whom I admire the most because by doing little, he can do so much. The way that he sings something while staring blankly into space: you can see lifetimes going on in his head, and you suddenly realise that it's not a blank expression at all. And the sound of his voice is so rich and beautiful and expressive. In this music, that's key to the success of the performance.
'We also have Paul Groves as Pylade. He's sung nearly all the previous incarnations of this opera with me, with the exception of the production I did in Paris. We did it in Salzburg, Chicago and San Francisco, and we're doing it at the Met later in the year [with Plácido Domingo as Orest], so Paul is one of the constant factors on this journey. A sweeter-voiced Pylade you could never find. So Simon, Paul and I have all been good friends for many years and it's wonderful to come together on this sort of project.'
Susan Graham has not appeared on the Covent Garden stage since 2004, when she gave a life-affirming, and for me definitive, portrayal of the Composer in Ariadne auf Naxos. 'Do you not like performing here?' I ask, casually. 'Of course I do! Are you kidding me?!' she responds, almost leaping out of her chair. 'I love it! It's a question of my schedule and the schedule of the opera house - they don't always do operas that have parts in them for me. And as much as I love coming here, and would love to come here much more often, we have to find the right titles. There are roles as a lyric mezzo that you don't do any more after you've performed them for quite a while. Among them are Dorabella (which I sang here) and Cherubino (which I didn't do here in the end). We tend to sing a lot of pants roles, and I'm moving away from them now on the whole - finally, I'm becoming a woman!' she laughs.
'But I'm doing a lot of heroic female parts, such as Didon in Les troyens. If anybody's listening, I'd love to do that here! I do still do Mozart's Clemenza, and certain Handel operas. There are some operas I'd like to do that they're not keen on. It's just a case of finding the right pieces.' Is she coming back in future seasons? 'It's not definite, but we're working on it', she replies with a glint in her eye.
Just as much at home on the concert stage as in the opera house, Susan Graham's current season includes performances of works by Berlioz and Ravel, as well as the Wigmore Hall recital in February 2008. How does her approach change when performing a concert work, compared with singing an opera? 'There's something I find in recitals particularly - the possibility of intimacy, when I'm onstage at the Wigmore Hall, for instance. The first time was terrifying, but once I walked out on stage it was amazing. It is my favourite place in the world to sing: there's nothing like the stage in the Wigmore Hall. You can create magic there because the acoustic is so perfect, and the audience is so warm and inviting - and knowledgeable! It's wonderful because they love music and they want to be there to enjoy it. It's a very welcoming feeling. Everyone's there to enjoy it, and it makes it enjoyable for me to sing there. I love the ability to get the message across in a very direct way. There's no pit, no gulf between us, no artifice. It's just pure. You are yourself, which can be a good and a bad thing because there's nowhere to hide! But once you make peace with that concept, you can get on with it and have a good time.'
In an interview with The Guardian in 2004, Graham said that one day she would like to sing the Marschallin in Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier and Kundry in Wagner's Parsifal. Are they still in the pipeline? 'We're looking at a possibility for the former. Kundry is still in an untapped place. Fortunately, a lot of the roles I wanted to do I've already done, and I'd like to do them again, like Didon and Poppea. I love singing Handel - I'm doing my first Xerxes in the next few seasons. It's funny to plan new roles that are four or five years out - you think, how many chances will I get to do them two or three times? I'm not twenty-five! It's interesting to think about new roles, because I've done a lot of different kinds of things.'
A few years ago, Graham sang the title role in The Merry Widow. Is that a direction she'd like to pursue? 'Well I don't want to do too many of them right now, but give me ten years and I'll be looking pretty good' she jokes. 'I've always wanted to try Kiss Me, Kate, too. I don't know if the right opportunity will come along, but I'm fascinated by the music in that piece.'
Graham's answers to my remaining questions are all similarly lucid. When I ask her what place music has in her life, she replies 'What does air mean to you? Music is that fundamental to me. It's air, it's water - it's an element for me. As far as I'm concerned, this is not really a job. I said to Bryn Terfel once, 'Do you miss life on the farm?' He replied, 'That's too much like real work!' I feel like that, too.'
Iphigénie en Tauride opens on 10 September at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. Susan Graham sings French songs at the Wigmore Hall on 9 February 2008.