Cathartic Trauma – How Susan Graham Overcame the Emotional Challenges of Performing ‘Dead Man Walking’

By Francisco Salazar

Overcoming a traumatic experience is an arduous task that really never goes away. It leaves its mark, the smallest stimulus bringing it back with greater potency.

Artists don’t always have the luxury of running away from trauma. They not only have to portray it but live it time and time again. And in the case of opera singers, they might have to relive it throughout their careers.

For Susan Graham, performing Jake Heggie’s “Dead Man Walking” was traumatic experience that she never wanted to do at all. But with the opera opening at the Washington National this weekend, the American mezzo-soprano is returning to an opera that brought her both emotional pain and catharsis over a decade ago.

She recently spoke to OperaWire about the journey of enduring the work once and then making the difficult decision to return to it again.

An Emotional Journey

Graham took 15 years to finally accept another offer for the opera as it reminded her too much of the emotional experience she went through when she first premiered the work in 2000.

Based on the novel by Helen Prejean, “Dead Man Walking” tells the story of a nun, who while comforting a convicted killer on death row, empathizes with both the killer and his victim’s families. When Graham first read the libretto and saw the part of Sister Helen, she told Heggie she could not do it, “It’s too emotional and the whole thing just makes me cry.” She knew that Terence McNally and Jake Heggie had written the opera with her in mind but it was difficult to overlook the trauma laden in drama.

However, Heggie had confidence in Graham and told her “that’s why you must. Because you’re so moved by it.”

But even then Graham took some time before saying yes. And when she finally acquiesced and dove into exploring this cruel world, there was always something hanging over the experience. “After every single rehearsal, there was a box of kleenexes on the table because everybody was crying,” she admitted.

Already feeling the painful experience of the music and events happening in the opera, Graham was going through another emotional crisis. Her father was dying at the time and as a result, the mezzo was trying to balance the professional and personal simultaneously.

“After we opened the show I rushed home to Texas and I visited him. I said okay, I’ll go back to San Francisco to do performance number two but I’ll be back. And he actually passed away during the second performance.”

Graham was hesitant to continue after her father’s death. “I mean I sang the rest of the performances in that run. But it was so overpowering experiencing death and singing about it. And shepherding some on stage through death. Shepherding the person through death. It was too much for me, especially to think about doing it again because I got offers and it’s been done all the time.”

Graham thanks her colleagues for helping her get through that production. She worked with Frederica Von Stade, a mezzo who has remained one of her good friends and who she has admired for a long time. “She’s got such pathos and compassion and she was a real good friend and a mentor for me. It was a great bonding experience and we got very close.”

She also got to work with the real-life Sister Helen. “It’s performance-changing to get to know her before opening night. I was playing that character a certain way just going by the music,” Graham revealed. “But then I met her in person and you want to be true to the person your emulating on stage, especially if it’s a real living person.

“I was surprised to find out what a comedian she is. She’s really funny and she uses humor to navigate through some really difficult things in her life and I do too. So when I found that we had that in common it changed my performance completely.”

But after that run in 2000, Graham turned her back on “Dead Man Walking,” for what she thought was forever.

“I’ve never wanted to go back to it. I knew I could never do it again. And I just knew that revisiting that music would bring out that volcano.”

Heggie, who is one of Graham’s close friends wanted her to go back to the work, but he understood her trepidation as he went through the experience with her.

But as they say and Graham herself stated rather clearly during the interview, “Never say Never.”

The Return

A few years back Graham received a call from Francesca Zambello, the artistic director of the Washington National Opera and asked her to do the role of De. Rocher, which Von Stade did at the World premiere. “I said no, no, no,” Graham admits.

But the curiosity and her friendship with Heggie made her rethink her decision.

“I started thinking about it and I thought, ‘If for no other reason than for my relationship with Jake, for his music which I hold in high esteem, I need to be part of this again.’ And so I said I would think about doing the part of the mother. And finally I sort of said, yeah okay.”

And as was the case when she first sang the opera, her return to the score after 10 years was met with a flood of tears, Graham admitting to sobbing in her bed.

“I wrote Jake a text that said, ‘You son of a gun.’ It was a bit stronger. I said,’ What’s happening is exactly what I was afraid of. So you are going to have to do some hand holding,'” She explained. “It’s already too much but the more I delve into it, the more I will be able to separate my emotional fears and that experience. So it’s not without trepidation.”

The Music 

Although it will be a new role for Graham, this represents the third time she does a different role in an opera she has performed before.

“In ‘Les Troyens,’ I sang Ascanius in 1994 and now, of course, I sing Didon. In ‘La Clemenza di Tito’ I sang Annio and then Sesto. What’s tricky is that when you have ensembles you want to take one part but then you realize that’s not the part,” she laughed.

And she knows that with Heggie’s music the challenge will be just as tricky. However, unlike Berlioz and Mozart, which follow structural melodies that are easy to follow, Heggie’s music is deceptive.

“Even if Jake’s music is melodic and somewhat classical in style, there is stuff going on inside it. Believe me, because I learned it the hard way. Even though I did all those rehearsals, I still have to devote some really serious specific setting to this part.”

What is difficult about it?

“The rhythms are quite complex because people don’t think 4/4 time. So the rhythms are very complex and the writing is quite angular and sometimes it’s very melodic. He likes to show the jaggedness of a character through angular writing. And so I remember I was singing in Salzburg when I was learning it and we started rehearsing in late August for an October opening and I remember sitting at the piano in Salzburg and humming the tunes. And I left it for to late because I thought that Jake’s songs were melodic and sweet and I didn’t know that the opera was going to be difficult as it was. But I got there.”

For her new role, Graham has spoken to Von Stade about it seeking out advice and ways that she can steer clear of the elder artist’s interpretation and make it her own.

“Flicka and I are very good friends. But she is so unique and specifically Flicka that I don’t have have any desire to imitate her or try and do what she did. My idea is to try and go in a different direction and play the character a little more grittier or hard-edged. It may or may not work because a character is defined by her words and music. And her words and music were written for Flicka. There is an inherent Flicka nature in this character. No matter how I try to make her.”

Working with the composer

For many operatic singers it can sometimes be questionable and sometimes frustrating  to consider what the composer was thinking when he or she wrote the piece. You can dialogue all you want with the score, but often you are left with no answers to very specific questions. But the return to “Dead Man Walking” is yet another chance to work with a living composer and a chance to have those sobering questions answered by the god of the score.

When Graham first did the opera, she and her second-billed mezzo Kristine Jepson were able to make suggestions about the vocal writing to Heggie.

“It was the first Jake had written. I was double cast with my very good friend Kristine Jepson, who’s very straightforward. She’s hilarious and very practical and funny,” she noted. “She would call out Jake because he had a habit of writing in the passagio and for a mezzo, we don’t like to stay there. You could go up there, but you have to come back down. Put your feet in the water and then go back up. And she said, to Jake, ‘You got to take the pen out of my crack. You need to rewrite these lines.’ So he did. He made it more tessitura friendly for a mezzo and it’s about making changes making it better and molding and shaping.”

While she acknowledges that she won’t get to mold the vocal lines the way she did before, Graham knows that having Hegge around will allow her insight into her role that she would never be able to get from anyone else.

The Surprises

While returning to “Dead Man Walking” has become a massive surprise for the mezzo, it is but one of many ways in which she has surprised herself over the last few years. She recently returned to Didon in “Les Troyens,” a role she thought was retired from her repertoire.

“It was great to get that call. The part was still in my voice and still in my body and I had a couple of musical rehearsals. It was all there and the director Tim Albery who I know very well and have worked with before, we read each others’ minds and he was full amazing suggestions. ”

For her the return was special because it has been a role she has sung around the world and has allowed her to make her artistic mark. What made it all the more unique was that she was the veteran of the cast with everyone else, excluding Christian Van Horn, stepping into Berlioz’s musical world for the first time.

One complete shocker for Graham was her entry into the sonic universe of Alban Berg’s “Lulu” in the role of the Countess Gecshwitz.

“Geschwitz almost killed me and it’s the hardest thing ever,” she revealed. “I’m a pianist, so I learn with the piano. Berg is really hard to play. Learning a Mozart part, I can play the whole thing. Berg I can not. What’s hard is memorizing it and those words come less and less easily as you get older. I would throw my score and say why this makes no sense.”

But rehearsing at her piano allowed her to see that the work was constructed as a fabric and her role was part of it. That intense work, alongside the company of soprano Marlis Petersen, were instrumental to her getting through the intense challenge.

“Marliss Petersen showed up and she sang it like it was Mozart. She was a pro.”

The Journey Continues 

As she gets older Graham is taking more time for herself and spending less time singing opera. That comes with its disadvantages as she gets less time to see her friends. But it gives her a chance to explore her concert repertoire a lot more and also allows her to spend more time with her husband, whom she recently married.

But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t remain hungry for new operatic challenges. Just don’t expect her to sing Marcellina in “Le Nozze di Figaro.”

“I want meatier roles. I am still at the top of my game,” she stated.

Graham is even open to taking a crack at the dense and complex music of Wagner.

“We’re looking at opening the repertoire, including some of the mezzo Wagner stuff like Fricka [from ‘Die Walküre’] that I can do. My voice is still working really well and as much as I joke about retirement, I do still love it.”

And if she was ever to retire Graham loves being in front of the cameras. Since the Metropolitan Opera began its HD series, the mezzo has been a host on the broadcasts several times and most have complimented her on her natural ability.

“Hosting is so much fun. It goes back to seeing friends. They prepare the questions for us and then I give it my own spin. I modify it and if I know something about the person I’m going to bring that up, especially if it’s something the people who write the questions don’t know.”

And if the HD gigs dry out, she has one more dream.

“I like to be entertained and entertaining. I’d like to be on screen when I’m not singing. I’d like to have my own TV show.”


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