Ahead of her appearances with the SSO, the mezzo talks big girl roles, speaking German, and the pleasures of the recital.

You’ve said in interviews that you didn’t grow up in a particularly operatic household, and hadn’t seen many operas before you travelled to New York to forge your career. Did that give you a particular perspective on the business of singing?

I think it gave me a particular opportunity to approach things from a very fresh, naive perspective. I didn’t have any pre-conceived notions about how Cherubino, for example, “should” be played. I could just start fresh from the words and the music, since I’d never actually seen it done before.

Roles like Iphigénie and Didon marked a turning point in your career. How did it feel stepping away from pants roles and into big, dramatic title roles?

When I turned about 40, we decided it was time to start doing “big girl” parts. First of all, you can’t sing ingénue (boy or girl!) parts forever, and so meatier parts became more interesting. I think, when it follows the arc of your life, it’s a good match. You grow up, so your roles grow up too. It was a great thrill to start essaying a kind of emotional depth that I hadn’t had the opportunity to do before.

Susan Graham and Plácido Domingo in a Metropolitan Opera production of Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride.

In recent years, you’ve also started doing more German repertoire, both on the opera stage and in recital. Are there any specific challenges in doing German-language opera or song? 

German was the first language I learned (after English!), so it’s always felt very natural to sing and speak in German. I studied German in college in Texas, so my accent was questionable for the first few years! However, after spending a lot of time singing in the Salzburg Festival, my accent went from “Texanisch” to quite “Oesterreichisch.” I lived in Holland for a while and once, when I landed in Berlin, my taxi driver said I spoke German with a “Niederlandische” (Dutch) accent! Maybe someday I’ll actually find that German accent…

People sometimes assume that due to the guttural nature of the language, it’s hard to sing in. However, I’ve always found singing in German to be very smooth and romantische!

Countess Geschwitz in Lulu seemed like a departure for you in terms of repertoire, being both German and a 20th-century piece, but you have recorded and performed Berg and 20th-century songs before. What was it like bringing that experience onto the opera stage for a role as rich as the Countess?  

It was the hardest thing I’ve ever learned. I think it may have taken 10 years off my life. I wanted to cancel it because it was just not going in my head. Everyone told me that it would eventually sink in and I’d be fine – and as it turns out, they were right! Once you sort of crack the code on it, it starts to make sense, and then you start noticing the recurrence of themes and those tone rows throughout the opera. She was a fascinating character to play, and again, I had no pre-conceived notions so I just played her very honest, and as the only character in the opera who truly loves Lulu.

Susan Graham in the Metropolitan Opera’s 2015 production of Berg’s Lulu.

Coming up for you in 2018 is the title role in Blitzstein’s Regina, which is a part with a deep bench of past performers across different genres. How do you approach a role like that?

It’s thrilling! I look forward to playing a “baddie” in opera – she’s a greedy woman who, literally, will stop at nothing to procure wealth and security. I’ve watched Bette Davis in the film The Little Foxes, and find her elegant, detached villainy pretty appealing! The music always provides another level of interpretation though, so we’ll see!

And what are the advantages or pleasures of performing in such a rare piece?

I think one has the freedom to create freshly, when there’s not some “definitive performance” lurking in the minds of the audience.  With rarer pieces, that’s easier to do – but then again, I’ve always done works that are unusual!

What roles have you got your eye on now?  

At this point, I’ve done most of the roles in my voice type, and the newest role I have at the moment is wife and stepmother!

You’ve performed a few times now in Australia. What keeps you coming back?  

Who doesn’t love coming back to Australia at any opportunity? Sydney is a gorgeous city with a vibrant artistic feeling, and the audiences are always so very welcoming and enthusiastic. Y’all are real music lovers, and that’s a great thing to come back to.

Mahler has been a constant throughout your career and you’ll be doing it in Sydney. Why do you keep returning to this composer?

Mahler really had his finger on the pulse of the human condition. There’s nothing more moving to me than the slow, mournful (if possible!) movement of a Mahler symphony. I’m attracted to the way he incorporates festive military themes, as well as melancholy introspection – but above all, my favourite performing experience with Mahler is Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen from his Rückert-Lieder, and Der Abschied from Das Lied von der Erde.

Ravel has also been at the heart of your repertoire since the beginning, and you’ll be performing Shéhérazade here as well. What makes it such an attractive proposition for both mezzos and sopranos?

It’s a piece with exotic, evocative, sexy storytelling, and the use of language combined with Ravel’s extremely sensuous writing is just delicious. The expression of the horrific attraction to even the savagery of the characters, and the languid seductive storytelling of the other two songs in the piece, make it really gratifying to perform.  The great orchestral and vocal climax in the first movement is thrilling, and standing in the middle of that tidal wave of sound is a great experience.

One of your greatest stage partnerships has been with Renée Fleming. You appeared with her in a concert performance of Der Rosenkavalier in 2016 even though you had retired the role a few years before that. What was it like reprising Octavian alongside Renée’s Marschallin? 

It was like coming home to an old friend – and by “old friend,” I mean Octavian. I prefer to call Renée a “long-time” friend! Our partnership in that opera has become so much a part of our DNA that it really was sheer joy the entire time to have the opportunity to sing it again, on stage with the brilliant Boston Symphony right behind us. Add our old pal Franz Hawlata into the mix, and it was quite a reunion!

Susan Graham and Renée Fleming in a Metropolitan Opera production of Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier.

Besides Renée, who have been your favourite collaborators over the years?

Paul Groves, Thomas Hampson, Christine Goerke, James Levine, Donald Runnicles, Sasha Cooke, Nick Phan, Barbara Bonney – but honestly, my family of performing friends is vast, and there are so many people I feel privileged to sing with, and call my friends.

You’re known for your innate stage presence, but how do you approach questions of character on a recital stage? Is it any different to the opera stage?

It’s just a different level of intimacy. In some ways, you can do so much more with so much less – it’s like the difference between theatre acting and film acting.  Subtlety can be more easily expressed in recital, because it’s as if you are in a pinpoint spotlight the entire time, like in close-up! In opera, we have all the tools of sets, costumes, magical lighting and effects. In recital there’s only the text, the voice, and the piano – and hopefully a nice dress! But in recital, you can have more interpretive freedom of dynamic, pacing, tempo, and you can change it up every time, depending on how the mood strikes you at the moment.

Are there any roles that you did early on in your career that you’d like to revisit?

The one role I’d like to do again would be Sesto in La clemenza di Tito. He’s a noble guy with amazing music to sing!

And is there a role, across any voice type, that you’d think would be great fun?  

Tosca! – down a third.

Susan Graham performs Mahler’s Symphony No 3 with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra July 19 – 24, and Ravel’s Shéhérazade with the SSO July 17 – 29.