Q & A: Mezzo-Soprano Susan Graham On Schumann’s ‘Frauenliebe un -leben: Variations,’ The Power of Love & Malcolm Martineau’s GeniusBy Chris Ruel
(Photo: Dario Acosta)
Mezzo-soprano Susan Graham has had an enviable career, winning such prestigious awards as a Grammy, an Opera News Award, and Musical America’s Vocalist of the Year.
As a champion of the French repertoire, the French government honored her with the title of “Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur.” Her roles span four centuries, singing in operas from Monteverdi’s “Poppea” to Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier” to Jake Heggie’s “Dead Man Walking,” with Heggie writing the part of Sister Helen Prejean especially for her. You may have seen Graham hosting Met Live in HD broadcasts when not on the Met stage herself. From growing up in small-town Texas to making it big on the greatest stages, Graham’s place among the world’s top opera stars is indisputable.
On February 4th, 2020, Graham sings Schumann’s “Frauenliebe und -leben: Variations (“A Woman’s Love and Life”)” at New York’s Lincoln Center as part of the Great Performers series. Graham’s collaborator, Malcolm Martineau, will accompany her on the piano.
In her conversation with OperaWire, Graham stated that Martineau was the mind behind the eclectic eight-part program that features works from Fauré to Poulenc to jazz. The glue that holds the eight sections together is the Schumann song cycle that traces the course of human love—from infatuation to the death of the woman’s husband. OperaWire took a deep dive into the creation of the program and what audiences can expect from the performances.
OperaWire: What was the genesis of this unique program?
Susan Graham: Malcolm Martineau and I have done a lot of programs together over the years. We were just talking one day about how we’d been so focused over the past couple of decades doing concerts that are not your standard warhorse material and how we’ve enjoyed semi-thematic programs. While we were talking, I said, “You know, I’m going to go through my whole career never having sung ‘Frauenliebe und -leben.’” And so, we focused on that iconic cycle.
Malcolm had a great idea to mix it up and put our stamp on it, which was to take the eight songs and see them as chapters in the woman’s life, augmenting and further illustrating each chapter with like-minded songs from other composers, other cultures, and other centuries. It has turned out to be very, very cool because the program itself takes on the whole arc of the story.
OW: And that story is the story of love, isn’t it?
SG: Oh, yeah, the arc and the phases of love. It’s funny, and this sounds blasphemous to say, but I’ve had opportunities to do “Frauenliebe und -leben” just free-standing, and it seems so short. It’s very abrupt. The woman has a baby and then her husband dies.
In this program, we get to make those chapters last. The thing that has been so interesting to me is how these different composers and different cultures treat the same subject matter, particularly in the final group—the one about death, and that is fascinating since every culture has its way of dealing with death.
In that final chapter of the cycle, we explore everything from a French flavor (Berlioz’s “Absence”) to the overt emotionality of the Spanish song (Granados’ “La maja dolorosa”), to the reserved, kind of detached observation of the English song, (Quilter’s “How should I your true love know?”) Then, we end with the final Schumann piece “Nun hast du mir den ersten Schmerz getan,” which is a combination, an amalgamation of all those. In that last song of the program, we get an incredible play out at the end that echoes the introduction of the first song of the cycle (Seit ich ihn gesehen). Also, in the first half of the program, each chapter begins with Schumann followed by the added songs.
After intermission, each chapter ends with Schumann. So, when we get to the end of the whole program, there’s an amazing reflection back to the beginning.
I’ve got to tell you; we’ve done this program quite a bit, and at the end of it, people are really locked into the story. The way Malcolm plays it, of course, is phenomenal, and it’s heartbreaking. People just sort of sit there for a couple of seconds to gather themselves before they applaud. There’s always a little moment of silence when the people are exhaling.
OW: When you’re on stage, what’s the feedback that you’re looking for from the audience that’s telling you you’re hitting this out of the park, that it’s resonating with them.
SG: You can always tell by how much coughing there isn’t. It’s true. I love taking them on my journey when I can get them to feel what I’m feeling. I feel like I’ve accomplished that when I can hear a pin drop in the silences. Sometimes, and it’s not really on purpose, but sometimes I sort of test for silence because that’s how you know that people are engaged and that they’re with you. It’s very cool because we’re all in this together. We’re all going down that path. We’ve all fallen in love with somebody we saw for the first time, and we’re all elated that there’s an engagement happening, we’re all elated when we get to walk down the aisle and we’re all enamored when a baby is on the way. Then, we’re all crushed at the thought of loss.
I may be naïve, but that’s my assumption. It’s the experience I’m having, I hope it’s the experience that everybody else is having too. The shared human experience is why we’re there. You know, it’s why we do anything; it’s why people gather thousands at a time in a big room and watch the same thing. It’s an innately connected experience whether you’re going to a movie, a play, a symphony concert, or a vocal recital.
OW: Is there an aspect of Schumann’s music that you find particularly appealing?
SG: You know, I grew up as a pianist and as such, I love the pianistic language of Schumann’s writing. It seems to tell its own story; it’s not just an accompaniment, it’s not just chords. Sometimes it is, but it’s also the way he weaves the piano and the voice together. I just love it.
OW: Let’s talk about the range of styles that form the program. You go from Schumann to jazz, among other eras and styles.
SG: Whenever we hit the Dankworth jazz song, I instinctively sort of lean back into the piano and this huge smile comes over my face because I love that song so much. It’s a genius bit of programming.
This program came out of Malcolm’s head, he’s “Malcopedia.” He has every song ever written in his head. When that song comes in, it’s an opportunity to give everybody permission to feel the music in a contemporary way. It’s immediate, not just something that’s removed and way off in the distance, chronologically speaking.
OW: How would you describe the vocal requirements of the music?
SG: To be honest, the Schumann is the least taxing vocally, it’s pretty middle register. The most taxing songs are some of the other ones. There are a couple of moments in the Spanish song at the end where it’s sort of wailing, it’s about death and it’s just wailing. So, it’s very high, very low, and taxing the extremes of the range.
Then there’s the delicacy of the Berlioz “Absence” that is sometimes challenging at that late point in the program.
OW: Has the preparation for this program differed from that of others?
SG: It has because there are eight languages represented. I’m not 25 anymore and my brain is not 25 anymore. I use the texts onstage and I try to be as subtle about it as I can. It’s like having a prompter because the linguistic gear changing is so fast and it goes faster than my brain can these days, so I have that crutch. I don’t love it, but it’s necessary. That’s really the only thing that’s particularly different.
OW: You’ve spoken a lot about the final section on loss. Is that your favorite?
SG: I think it probably is. I also love the first. It’s funny, we’ve all heard so many different recordings and interpretations of “Frauenliebe und -leben,” and I don’t know whether it’s because of my innate sense of arrested development, but I see her as someone really young. And, so when I start the cycle, to me, she’s like 16. I really enjoy exploring her naivete and youth. It’s also because that’s sort of how I was when I had first blush or first love. I was young, and my heart beat fast and I kind of couldn’t believe it, I couldn’t believe how amazing it was that he liked me back. All of that stuff is written into the text and music.
The other big point I want to make is that in the times we now live, people view this poetry as archaic and the woman as subservient. She says: Oh, I have to curtsy as he walks by, and Oh, my life revolves around him, in that Victorian way that is lacking female empowerment.
However, the truth of the matter is that in the original poetry, she was an employee in his home. He was the lord of the manor and she was the governess. It was a class thing; he was her boss. She had to bow as he walked by, not because she was female, but because she was an employee.
And so, what I like to say and probably will say—I’m giving away my punch line—is that she actually is very empowered because she set her sights on him and she gets him. She tells him the way things are going to be. In the song when she reveals that she’s going to have a baby, she says: The crib is going to be with us in our bedroom, not across the mansion with the nanny and the nurse. This is how it’s going to be, buddy. She lays down the law and tells him how things will go.
OW: Knowing each has their own joy, which do you find more satisfying; staged productions or concert/recital work?
SG: Well, you know, at this point in my life, they are so vastly different. Fifteen years ago, I would have said they’re close to being the same animal, but I do less opera now than I used to. I would say that the immediate contact with the audience is much more available in recitals because you’re right there; you can make eye contact with the audience, and you can, as we discussed before, bring them in, hold them in your hand and dare them not to breathe.
Opera takes a lot more time and a lot more physical effort. The only opera I’ve done in the last couple of years is “Hansel and Gretel.” I was the witch, and that was exhausting but fun. I’m about to go sing Herodias in “Salome” in Houston.
OW: Herodias is a role debut for you. What excites you about that?
SG: I love Strauss so much. Outside of Octavian, other Strauss roles I’ve done is Clairon in “Capriccio” in Santa Fe and the Composer in “Ariadne auf Naxos.” It’s very challenging, it’s very difficult, and it’s hard to learn because the notes are Strauss-tricky. It’s one of those roles that’s interjectory. We call them “bitty” because it’s a bit here and a bit there. That’s always hard because there’s lots of stuff going on; you have to count 15 bars of rests and then you’re done.
Herodias says about four things, she says: No, there’s nothing wrong. It’s just the wind. It’s just the moon; Stop looking at Salome; and, Salome, don’t dance. She says that a million times.
OW: Do you have any parting thoughts you would like people to know about the Schumann program?
SG: I guess I want to disabuse people of the impression that it’s old-fashioned and not relevant. I’m always struck by the song about when they’re just about to get married. She says all these things like: “If it weren’t for him, my life would be horrible.” Who hasn’t felt that way when they first fall in love?
My wedding day was three and a half years ago. I was never so excited as I was when I walked down the aisle and I saw him standing there. It was the best moment of my life and I thought, my life is now complete. My life was fantastic before I found him, but it got even better after. That’s not a lack of empowerment, that’s just an openness to letting someone into your life, I think.