23 July 2007

Susan Graham

Mon âme soeur

I’d been a great admirer of Susan Graham’s for several years before I finally got the chance to meet her. She was singing a recital to benefit Classical Action, at the home of Locke Whitney, and the Opera News staff was invited to attend. The idea of a recital in a private home struck me as something out of Proust, and a Whitney is about as close to a Guermantes as I’m ever likely to get. Thus I wasn’t entirely surprised when Susan’s first number turned out to be “A Chloris,” the stately, tender love song that’s one of the staples of her rep, and it just happens to be composed by Reynaldo Hahn, Proust’s sometime lover and the first person to read A la recherche de temps perdu. (Proust might have appreciated the fact that the pianist’s page-turner was a Juilliard student I’d hooked up with many times.)

But that’s one great thing about music: it connects us to other listeners, to the singer and the piano player, to the page turner and the composer, to the lyricist, to all the people who ever sang the song before, and to all the people who ever heard it.

And nobody sings “A Chloris” better than Susan Graham. Somehow she’s only improved her interpretation since she first recorded it, on an all-Hahn album, several years ago; in Locke’s apartment that evening, she spun out a warm, glowing line that ached with desire. She reached across the centuries, seizing the melody (which Hahn borrowed from Bach) and the text (by a Renaissance French nobleman who was executed for the crime of homosexuality) with one hand — and my heart with the other.

She followed up with two numbers from a role she was adding to her repertoire, the title part in Handel’s Ariodante. Right then, I made up my mind to fly to Houston to hear her sing the whole opera. (It was well worth the trip. She sang her big number, “Scherza, infida,” while lying on her back, sliding down a sort of dome. In time to the music. Unbelievable.)

After the recital, I was chatting with Susan’s publicist at the time, Sylvie Bigar, and mentioned that I started most mornings by playing Susan’s recording of “A Chloris.” “You’re like the twelfth person to tell me that tonight!” she exclaimed, then rounded up, no lie, a dozen guys, all of whom played “A Chloris” every morning.

Music connects.

At last Susan greeted the guests, and we met for the first time. During our brief conversation, she kissed me. Twice. I was hopelessly, permanently smitten.

It was a warm spring night, and the moon was full. Leaving the party, the page-turner invited me back to his place — and somewhat to our mutual astonishment, I declined the invitation. The evening had been perfect. To add anything else — even really, really good sex — would only spoil it.

The next day, Susan came to the Opera News offices, and she kissed me again. Rewarding my fidelity? Sealing my doom? All of the above?

We have a lot almost in common. We’re both Francophiles. We’re both raised Methodist. We’re both Texan — but she was born in New Mexico. We’re the same age — but she’s a year older. We’re the same height — but she’s an inch taller.

Yet those things don’t explain what happens when she sings: it’s as if there’s no stage, no audience, no other musicians, nobody else in the universe. She’s right in front of me, singing for no one but me, and nothing exists but the music and us. It’s uncanny. A few other singers are able to do this, sometimes, but Susan Graham does it for me every time.

After a performance at Carnegie Hall, I went backstage to congratulate her. She was wearing a feather boa that she’d artfully incorporated in her singing of some French numbers, and she was, of course, gorgeous. “You did it again,” I said.

“Did what?”

“That thing you do, where you make everybody else go away and sing only for me.”

“Oh,” said Susan, deadpan. “Did you notice it, too?”