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Opera fans who check out Susan Graham's America Online profile might be surprised to discover that her hobbies include Rollerblading, jazz, and poodle psychiatry. She lists her occupation simply as "musician," but this singer's screen name involves a delicious pun on her own voice category, mezzo-soprano, while her personal quote philosophically tells us that "life is what happens while you're planning for it." Clearly Graham is a diva with a good sense of humor and a taste for the unconventional—not many opera stars have the nerve to go on-line to chat and trade opinions with fans, critics, and colleagues.
Nor does Graham's busy international career follow predictable paths. Unlike most opera singers nowadays, this glamorous 41-year-old from New Mexico actually enjoys tackling new music, and her impassioned interpretation of Sister Helen Préjean helped make the world premiere of Dead Man Walking a big hit last year in San Francisco. With its music by Jake Heggie and libretto by Terrence McNally, this operatic retelling of the Oscar-winning film dealing with capital punishment proved so successful that the Erato label is issuing a complete recording of the work.
This fall Graham celebrates her tenth season at the Metropolitan Opera, performing Idamante in Mozart's Idomeneo. It's perhaps a sign of the times that voices like Graham's—lyrical, flexible, brightly textured—are now plentiful and seem happiest when singing either contemporary music or the classical operas from Mozart's day and even earlier. The throat-tearing dramatic roles in the Verdi and Wagner operas are not for this aristocratic instrument, but that still leaves plenty of juicy repertory for her to explore.
"I'm lucky in that respect," Graham says, "and hardly feel like I'm a prisoner of a trend. Although my voice doesn't fit the big Verdi parts, it responds naturally to Mozart, French opera, and much new American music. Jake Heggie specifically wrote Sister Helen for a lyric mezzo because he felt that best suited the character's personality." This type of voice has also recently captured the public's imagination in a big way. Graham modestly credits Marilyn Horne, Frederica von Stade, and Cecilia Bartoli, but she could easily include herself in this royal line of mezzo-sopranos.