Susan Graham

The opera star on losing her Texas accent in New York, making the president weep at the White House—and getting the giggles in France.

Last year you debuted with Houston Grand Opera and this year with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. Why did it take so long to get back to Texas?

I wish I had the answer to that. Sometimes to be appreciated in your home village you have to go out and prove yourself in other places.

Such as the White House?

Yes, I sang for a state dinner last May.

What did you sing?

I did a program of American songs and ended with "Bless This House." Right after 9/11 somebody said I should sing it, and I thought, "I want to sing it at the White House." While I was singing "Bless the folk who dwell within/Keep them pure and free from sin," I was looking right at the president. By the end, he had tears in his eyes. He came up onstage during the applause, and he said, "Well, Susan, I think you really did bless this house tonight."

You moved to Texas as a child?

I grew up in New Mexico, and coming to Texas when I was twelve was such an eye-opener in terms of the pride that everyone has in what they do, their ambition, and their ability to "dream as big as Texas."

Did you always want to pursue music?

Music always spoke to me. It was my identity in high school. Lee High School, in Midland, had a very strong choral tradition. We won all the awards. I sang the lead role in school musicals.

What was your first big role?

Sister Maria in The Sound of Music . That was the beginning of my love of the theater. I loved everything about it—the costumes, becoming someone else, memorizing the dialogue—and I loved singing and telling a story.

You graduated from Texas Tech. Did you participate in student opera there?

Yes. We did some Mozart, but we also did [Gounod's] Faust, some operetta, and a lot of programs of scenes, which is a great thing for young singers because it exposes them to different operas. I did my first trio from [Strauss's] Der Rosenkavalier at Texas Tech in 1981, singing the role of Octavian, and one of my teachers sent me a video of that program just a couple of years ago. Back then I didn't know the whole opera, and I'd never seen it, but I noticed in watching the video that some of the instinctive physical gestures I was making I'm still using in that role.

When did you first see a full production of Rosenkavalier?

I was at the Met on spring break, up in the nosebleed seats. I was looking down on that stage, and I thought, "I've got to do that role." And twelve years later I was at the Met doing it.

You've performed all over the world. What's the strangest experience you've had?

I once sang with a mute tenor in Toulouse, France. He was sick and had lost his voice. It was an opera that was not well known, and they couldn't find anyone who knew the part well enough to do it from memory and also do the staging in a performance. They flew some guy in, and he stood over at the corner of the stage with a music stand, singing the music, and my sick tenor was Marcel Marceau-ing it. During the big love scene, here we were in this clinch, and he was mouthing the words. But the guy who was singing wasn't quite in sync; he would go for the high note, and then my guy would go for the high note. And I got the giggles.

Did you ever have to struggle with your West Texas accent?

No. When I moved to New York, I lost it right away. Singers are trained to be able to sound native in any dialect. So if I need to, I can adopt a very generic accent that has no trace of Texas in it.

But you do sometimes slip back?

Oh, yeah. I could be in Paris—France, not Texas—speaking French all day. But then I'll get on the phone with my mama and it is like some alien voice is coming out of me.

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