IT’S THE PIVOTAL SCENE IN Handel’s Ariodante: Susan Graham, singing the title role, has the audience enthralled as she wafts the plaintive melody up, up into the highest reaches of the Houston Grand Opera’s lofty Wortham Theater Center. At the end of the great lament, the crowd goes wild. That wouldn’t be so remarkable for the internationally acclaimed mezzo-soprano, except for the fact that she is lying on her back and sliding down a major piece of the scenery.
Fast-forward a month, same stage, first act of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor: soprano Laura Claycomb is in love, cavorting about, delivering a lovely aria in exquisite, florid bel canto style. In a gesture that instantly characterizes the teenaged bride-to-be of Lammermoor, she flops down on the edge of a fountain as if it were the couch in a suburban family room and sings the most delicate lines on her back, while gazing up into the artificial snowflakes falling from the night sky. At the end, the audience bursts into happy applause.
Besides their showbiz flair and ability to vocalize to great effect in whatever position the stage director dictates, what else do these two operatic divas have in common? Well, they are both at the top of their game and much in demand all over the U.S. and Europe for their great vocal and acting skills. They both elicit the same kind of extravagant critical praise that compels discerning opera lovers to travel hundreds, even thousands of miles to hear them.
Oh, yes… . Did I mention that they are both from Texas?
That is something I only recently learned myself. Although I have enjoyed Susan Graham’s recordings for years—a solo disc of Berlioz’s Les Nuits d’été and a recording of Handel’s Alcina with soprano Renée Fleming are particular favorites—the first opportunity to hear her in a Texas opera house came last November when she was invited to premier her role in Ariodante at the Houston Grand Opera. Graham’s biographical material always mentioned that she was born in New Mexico, then went on to describe her successes—particularly in many “trouser roles,” the young male roles written by Mozart and Richard Strauss for mezzo-sopranos. What had eluded my attention was that she had moved at age thirteen to Midland, where her family still lives, then studied voice at Texas Tech in Lubbock, before attending the Manhattan School of Music. Obviously, she’s an adoptive Texan.
Likewise, although Laura Claycomb had made a big splash on the European opera scene, she was practically unknown to Texas opera fans when she arrived in Houston in the 2001-2002 season to sing Gilda in Verdi’s Rigoletto, opposite the famous Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky. When she stole the show, HGO general director David Gockley promptly invited her back to perform Lucia, a role she had performed in Europe. But she had never appeared in Texas professionally, not even in her home town of Dallas, where she studied voice at Southern Methodist University.
Repeat engagements of singers who are audience favorites are a hallmark of David Gockley’s opera company, but it was a bit unusual that Susan Graham should be staying on to rehearse her next role for HGO, the delightful widow Hanna in Franz Lehar’s Viennese operetta The Merry Widow. When I realized that she would be in town at the same time as Laura Claycomb, I jumped at the chance to talk to them both about their careers and their Texas experiences.
Claycomb arrived for the interview at the HGO offices looking every bit the diva that she is, accompanied by her friendly tricolor cavalier King Charles spaniel, Tullio. A slender, red-haired woman, she looks ideally suited for the part of the Scottish lass Lucy Lammermoor.
texasmonthly.com: It’s unusual, isn’t it, that two ladies with Texas connections are singing in leading roles in the same town?
Laura Claycomb: I don’t think so, not any more. There are a heck of a lot of really high quality Texas singers. One of my best friends is Mary Mills [an alum of the HGO Studio who has had national success], who went to Highland Park High School too. She was four years older than me, so we just missed each other, but I knew who she was.
TM: When did you see your first opera?
LC: When I was younger I went to St. Michael’s School, and they took us to the opera. I didn’t like it. I think it was in English, and I couldn’t understand it.
TM: Did your parents take you to the opera?
LC: I was a junior or senior in high school, and I dragged my parents to the opera. It was the first time my dad had been to the opera. It was awful. They were doing Siegfried. By the third intermission he had sneaked in a candy bar and he was asking, “Could we go yet?”
TM: How did you get started in your singing career?
LC: I was in the chorus at Lovers Lane United Methodist Church. I started taking voice lessons because I wanted to take part in musicals. My parents asked, “Why do you want to take voice? You’re already taking cello lessons and piano lessons and you don’t practice them.” But they let me take lessons.
TM: So, what were some of your early successes?
LC: My first solo in church was an original piece, which I sang with a big contralto voice. I was fourteen. [sings] “Galilee man, where are you going? …” It was the pinnacle of the whole evening. That’s when my mother and father realized I could sing.
TM: And from there?
LC: Then my teacher kept putting me in competitions and I kept winning them. I was the queen of NATS [National Association of Teachers