Grand Dames

International opera divas Susan Graham and Laura Claycomb haven't forgotten their Texas roots. They came back to star in two productions by the Houston Grand Opera.

March 2003By Comments

Susan Graham laments betrayal as Ariodante.

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 of Singing]. In my junior year in high school I won the upper division competition. So my senior year they didn’t quite know what to do with me, and they put me in the freshman college division . . . and I won that! And so on. She kept pulling me along.

TM: You attended SMU.

LC: Yes, I studied with Barbara Hill Moore. I had been to Interlochen with all those young musicians and had such a great time. I looked around at other schools but just decided to stay in Dallas with the teacher I knew. I got my degree in music and languages—Spanish, Italian, and French. I actually had my professional debut my senior year in Shreveport as Adele in Die Fledermaus.

TM: From there you went to San Francisco?

LC: At the time, I was the youngest person ever accepted in the Merola program [the young artists program at the San Francisco Opera]. I covered the roles for the lead singers. I learned so many roles there—Zerbinetta. . . . I worked really hard on acting, because I knew when I was in high school the reason I didn’t get the roles was because I wasn’t very good at acting.

TM: Tell me about your big break.

LC: In 1994 I got the call from a friend to fly to Geneva to cover the role of Giulietta in I Capuleti e i Montecchi. I had my bags packed to go to New York, and I just got on a different plane. I did all the rehearsals. She [the diva] was on her way to the airport and got in a car wreck and hit her head and canceled. Oh, dear. So I got to do all of the shows, and I had done all of the rehearsals. It was such a big deal, and everything happened from there.

TM: So you actually had a rather smooth road to stardom?

LC: In retrospect it seems rather smooth. You know, it seems like childbirth—or at least what I understand of childbirth. You know, you have this wonderful child and you forget about the labor; and it was a lot of labor.

TM: But you were discovered relatively early.

LC: But what does it mean to be discovered? I feel like I’m only being discovered right now. And that’s ten years down the road. It doesn’t mean that all of a sudden I’m singing. The one thing that’s been my focus is to do bigger and better things, the meatier things that are of interest to me. The big thing in my life is recording, because that is how you get known—that’s just a fact of life. But the recording industry is dying. You have to have some gimmick. I’m a lumberjack and I sing opera. Well, how about, “I’ve studied opera and I sing opera?”

Susan Graham comes in and we exchange a few words about the difficulties of singing while sliding down an incline, as she had done in the previous month’s Ariodante.

TM: Susan Graham, I feel like I know you after I heard you sing last November in Ariodante.

Susan Graham: Well, good. You do! It was certainly one of the highlights of my opera-singing career.

TM: You are from New Mexico?

SG: Technically, I am. But I was educated here. I studied voice here. I think you should be able to claim the state that you went through puberty in.

TM: And that was Texas.

SG: Yes, I came to Midland when I was thirteen years old.

TM: I’ve heard that you got interested in opera after seeing an HGO traveling group in Midland.

SG: Yes. They did Cosí fan tutte. I had just been in a school production of The Sound of Music, in which I sang Maria, and I realized that it was not so different.

TM: And then you went off to Texas Tech?

SG: Yes. Gene Kenny was the choral director there, and I had attended a choral workshop. When I got there I discovered the opera department. Several well-known singers have come from there, including Terry Cook, Bruce Ford, and Mary Jane Johnson. I took my technical training there with Mary Gillas.

TM: And now you’ve made an international career in opera. How is it that you came to a Texas opera house for the first time so relatively late, and that you came for two productions, practically back-to-back?

SG: One summer about two years ago, David Gockley approached me about doing Ariodante. There is that much lead time, and I just had to wait my turn. And we made up for it.

TM: I understand that there was a change of plans. You had premiered the role of Sister Prejean in Dead Man Walking in San Francisco and planned to repeat that role here, but the decision was made to do The Merry Widow instead.

SG: I remark every day how different an experience that is from The Merry Widow. Dead Man Walking is huge, profound, and life-changing, while The Merry Widow is so much fun, it’s hard to remember that this is a profession. The very first day the director said, “You know, I just think you are going to be one of the most wonderful merry widows ever.” And I just started laughing. Ariodante was work, a challenge every single day, but this is just like falling off a log.

TM: And I know you could do that, singing all the way. But, of course, you had to learn two roles in very quick succession

SG: The Merry Widow I’ve seen so much. Not only do you leave singing the songs, you also enter practically singing the songs.

TM: How is it that you moved on from Lubbock to your career?

SG: Well, I attended the Manhattan School of Music and studied with Marlena Malas. I still see her. I go for six to eight months at a time between lessons, pick up bad habits, and then go see her. That’s what good technique is all about, to ensure a long and healthy vocal life. Then I started going to opera theater programs, like all young singers. I debuted at St. Louis and then at the Met in 1991.

TM: And the rest is history, as they say. What do you have in your future?

SG: Heroic lady roles, the noble ladies, like Gluck’s Iphigenie. Of course, the trouser roles will be there—except for Cherubino—but I’m planning to do [Henry Purcell’s] Dido and Aeneas soon, for instance, with Ian Bostridge in London.

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