Susan Graham doesn’t want to be your friend.
“Everyone asks me, ‘Are you on Facebook? Do you have a thousand friends?’” the eminent mezzo-soprano said recently in her apartment near Lincoln Center. “I do not. I’m not interested in being friends with people I don’t know in real life. I’ve gotten criticism for it. I got a comment on my Web site, someone saying, ‘You’re so ungrateful.’ But I’m not your friend; I’m an artist. I’m grateful for your support, but just because you came to see me sing does not give you a window into my private life.”
Ms. Graham’s apartment, with its comfortable couches and slightly crooked prints on the walls, has a quality unusual among the homes of people who travel a great deal: It seems like a place where someone actually lives, a real apartment. And Ms. Graham, with her Ugg boots and tights, her friendly laugh and disarming candor, seems like a real person.
She is precisely the kind of warm, engaging, mom-next-door presence that opera loves these days, but she doesn’t always follow the script. Ms. Graham doesn’t write a blog, and while her publicists set her up on Twitter, she often forgets she has it. This is, needless to say, far from the party line circa 2011 in the opera world, which tends to pin its hopes for continued relevance on the obsessive adoption of social media.
At 50, she is old enough to remember and respect a time when divas were divas, set apart even when they were popularized, as when Beverly Sills would guest-host The Tonight Show. But with her “Diva” coffee mug and her Jenny Craig diet, Ms. Graham is very much a modern girl.
The lessons we might learn from the blurry line she walks between her ordinary life and her extraordinary career wouldn’t matter if Ms. Graham were not one of the great singers of our time. She has a rich but flexible voice of evenness and power and an effortlessly sympathetic stage presence, a softly sculptural face that looks great under lights. She manages to be heartbreaking even when dragging around a giant pencil, as in a Brussels production of Berlioz’s Damnation de Faust.
Ms. Graham was born in 1960 in Roswell, N.M., and grew up in Midland, Texas. She studied voice at Texas Tech, and moved to New York when she was 25 to get a second master’s at the Manhattan School of Music.
In 1987, during her second year, she had a breakthrough starring in a production of Massenet’s little-known Chérubin, a premonition of the French repertory in which she’s spent much of her career. “Susan Graham had only to appear and toss off Chérubin’s ecstatic ‘Je suis gris,’” Peter G. Davis wrote in New York, “to let us know that a major talent had arrived, one combining a quality vocal endowment, rare musical intelligence, and a vibrant stage presence.”
She won the Met’s National Council Auditions the following year, in a class that also included Renée Fleming and Ben Heppner. In the years after her 1991 Met debut, she did smaller roles, but by the mid-’90s had graduated to Octavian, Cherubino, Dorabella. She brought Chérubin to Covent Garden for her debut there in 1994, and within five years was singing in all the major houses. She rose in a generation filled with mezzos-from Anne Sofie von Otter to Cecilia Bartoli to the late, great Lorraine Hunt Lieberson-but there seemed to be room for everyone.
It was in certain ways, despite the competition, an easier time. Appearance is far more important now, as Ms. Graham, who has starred in and regularly hosts the Met’s HD broadcasts, knows as well as anyone.
“This generation of singers coming up is being groomed for the television cameras,” she said. “We weren’t. We are now. Look at Renée. She’s undergone a physical transformation over the past 10 years. I lost 30 pounds last year. But still, you’re not 25, and the camera’s in your face and it’s in HD. It’s turning our audiences into people who become more obsessed with the literal. They’re less likely to suspend their disbelief, to accept someone who doesn’t look like the part. I mean, witness the whole Debbie Voigt thing a couple of years ago. When Ariadne has to fit the dress, what is that?”
And the collapse of the classical record industry is especially upsetting when it comes to Ms. Graham. She has one of the great discographies in modern singing, including a Reynaldo Hahn songs album that is simply one of the great recordings of all time. Now, lacking an exclusive contract, when she wants to do a recording, she basically has to organize it herself; she’s lately been working with the independent company Onyx recently, whose staff is made up largely of refugees from the big labels.
In the past decade, she’s phased out the Cherubinos and Octavians and moved on to what she calls the “big girl” roles: The Merry Widow; Gluck’s Iphigénie, which she is doing at the Met starting Feb. 12; and Didon in Les Troyens, which she’ll bring to the house in a couple of years. And she has begun the small first steps to settling down. Ten years ago, in the wake of the breakup of a long relationship, she bought a house near Santa Fe, where she’ll retire.
“I’m terrified,” she said, tearing up as she spoke about her future, a vintage Chérubin poster hanging above the dining table. “I’m scared to death about what’s going to happen when I don’t have singing anymore. I’m not scared about how I’ll survive; I’m just scared of where my head will be because I love what I do so much.”
She might try an administrative post in an opera company, like the creative consultancy Ms. Fleming will be starting at Chicago Lyric Opera, or perhaps something in fund-raising. Her real dream, she said, half-jokingly, is to host a talk show. “Is that too much to ask?” she said. “I would be great at that.”
It’s hard to know what to do with this part of an opera singer’s career. You’re one of the best in the world. It’s as simple as that. Your performances are excellent, uncontroversial, well reviewed. This is the point at which audiences begin to take you for granted. You’re in a groove, though the productions change, and it’s worse than in film or theater, because the parts are the same ones, a relatively small, even dwindling number of them. The only thing you can do is keep going out there, night after night, into what Ms. Graham calls “the heat of battle.”
“You get to a point where, you know, you just want to keep doing really good work on a high level,” she said. “You just want to not fall down; you just want to remain standing. I hope I’ll sing for 10 more years. I hope. I’m at the point now where there’s more in back of me than in front of me. I don’t want to have to get the hook. That’s why I felt so good about those last Octavians. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, she should stop singing that.’ It was like, ‘Oh, you should do some more.’ Leave ‘em wanting more, baby!”