Susan Graham teams up with Renee Fleming for a duo divas tour

By Kyle MacMillan
Chicago Sun-Times

Susan Graham has been featured on the cover of Opera News enough times, including the December issue, that she has lost count.

The frequency of her appearances centerstage in one of the field’s leading publications is just one measure of the stature of this 52-year-old mezzo, who has gained international renown for her elegant, insightful performances.

Lyric Opera of Chicago audiences have had no shortage of opportunities to savor Graham’s artistry, including a 2009-10 production of “The Damnation of Faust,” but Thursday they will get a chance to hear her in a different context.

She has teamed with another opera star, soprano Renee Fleming (who’s also Lyric Opera creative consultant), for a program of French art songs and arias the two are taking to six major venues across the country, including Carnegie Hall and Disney Concert Hall. It is the first duo-recital tour of her career.

“They’re rather uncommon,” Graham said of such two-person tours, “because we’re primarily solo artists when it comes to concerts, and for the stars to align in a way that both of us have the same time free and a project that we’re both wanting to be a part of at that same time is a rare occurrence.”

The mezzo-soprano can justifiably be called an operatic diva, but she has few if any of the negative qualities sometimes associated with that title. She grew up in Midland, Texas — not exactly a cultural hotbed — and still comes off as a kind of “aw, shucks” girl next door.

“I didn’t grow up knowing that these kind of careers existed,” she said with a little Texas twang still detectible, “because I didn’t come from an operatic family or an area geographically where I had a lot of exposure to that kind of thing. I became an opera singer, because it seemed impossible and I loved music.”

Aware of the many hurdles that have be overcome to achieve a viable operatic career, she decided as a budding singer she would do whatever took to make it happen. “I just count my lucky blessings everyday that it did,” Graham said, who got a huge boost in 1988 as a winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. “The luckiest people in the world are those who make a living doing what they love, and as I always tell young singers now, ‘You better love it!’

“It’s extremely rewarding but it is also extremely demanding. It requires sacrifice almost every day and even now. I’ve been doing this for 25 years, and it still requires sacrifice.”

As part of a series she curated this season at Carnegie Hall, Fleming asked Graham, a longtime friend and collaborator, if she would like to reprise a 2004 concert they did at the Kennedy Center with a few modifications.

“Then, of course,” Graham said, “the idea was: This is too great to just spend on one venue. This is too fun, so let’s get more mileage out of this, so it turned into a tour.”

The all-French program, titled “Soiree Francaise,” focuses on the Belle Epoque (1871-1914), a period of economic prosperity and cultural flowering that saw the construction of the Eiffel Tower and rise of Claude Monet and the Impressionists.

Included will be art songs by Camille Saint-Saens, Gabriel Faure and Reynaldo Hahn as well as operatic excerpts, such as the Barcarolle from Jacques Offenbach’s “Les contes de Hoffmann.”

Graham has shown an uncommon affinity for French music and can frequently be heard in Gallic repertoire, including a starring role in the Metropolitan Opera’s massive, just-ended production of Hector Berlioz’s “Les Troyens.”

Her contributions to French culture were honored in 2011, when she was named a Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur.

“For an American,” she said, “for a girl from Texas to get this award — it’s a huge honor and I cherish it.”

Kyle MacMillan is a locally based free-lance writer.