15 July 2009

Reflections on a Further Frisson

Photographer Dario Acosta has a knack
for revealing Susan Graham’s playful side.

On Friday, 10 July, mine was the extraordinary luck to attend a recital by Susan Graham — the same program of songs from her recent album, Un Frisson Français, that she’d offered in Brussels, where I heard her last month. This time, her accompanist was Brian Zeger, instead of Malcolm Martineau, and the venue was the open-air Spanish Courtyard at Caramoor, in Katonah, NY, instead of the stage of the theater De Munt/La Monnaie. I was more concerned with other differences, however, because one of the great blessings of live performance is it’s never the same twice, and moreover, having the opportunity to hear Susan perform the Frisson program so soon, I hoped to get a sense of her artistic process.

If I were smarter, I might have sensed even more: give me another couple of dozen of these recitals, and I’ll be a genuine expert.

Writers often strive to create “prose that aspires to the condition of music,” and this writer finds himself constantly aspiring just to write about music. It’s an ongoing challenge, trying to describe in words a phenomenon that has so little to do with language. Indeed, there were moments during Susan’s recital when I simply switched off the part of my brain that uses language. I understood her meaning, because she colors the music with her voice; and the sheer physical pleasure of hearing that voice, of allowing the sound to envelop and embrace me, took precedence over almost everything.

And yet — I repeat — I did not unlock the mysteries of Susan Graham’s art on Friday. What follows are merely random observations, souvenirs of a summer evening, of a garden in song.


The garden helped me to understand that, when Susan inhales, she’s not merely breathing in order to power the next phrase of her song — she’s breathing in the fragrance, entering into the atmosphere, living inside the world that her song describes. There’s nothing vague or generalized about this, nothing that says, “Look at me! This is my song about a flower!” I am willing to bet that she associates a specific aroma with a particular phrase. I got something of the same sensation during the “Clair de lune” of Massenet’s Werther, which I heard Susan sing in March: the moonlight was real to her then.

The moonlight at Caramoor was real, and the roses were blooming. Susan’s voice made them more real, and sometimes she transformed them — to bright sunlight or cold shadows, or to the perfumes not of a flower but of an absent lover.


Malcolm Martineau is not an act I’d like to follow, but Brian Zeger is awfully good, really eloquent in every style and supporting Susan so lovingly.


The Caramoor audience seems to have included a number of French-speakers. We managed to follow the lyrics with relative ease, and there weren’t the odd lags that sometimes come from reading translated texts: we didn’t laugh before the jokes. Susan told me in Brussels that singing French texts to a French audience puts her less at her ease, and in fact she flubbed a couple of lines that night; but on Friday, she sailed through her lyrics, letter-perfect.

For a non-French audience, Susan told me, she’ll sometimes act out the text a bit more, gesture a bit more broadly, so that laugh lines hit their marks. I was seated much closer to her at Caramoor than in Brussels, yet her acting seemed much on the same scale, natural and lighthanded.


Canteloube’s lullaby, “Brezairola,” features the lyric “Soun, soun, béni, béni, béni.” Officially, this means "Sleep, sleep, come, come, come" in Auvergnat, but it sounds for all the world like “Soon, soon, Billy, Billy, Billy,” the tenderest words of comfort and counsel Susan (or Canteloube) could offer me as I endure this long waiting period in my professional life.

Does this mean that Susan will now enter into the highly select group of Those Who Call Me Billy (my late aunt Kay; Gabriel Bacquier; and Fredd Tree)?


When she got to Poulenc’s “La Dame de Monte-Carlo,” I could “see” not only her character’s face and costume, but the casinos and seaside around her, and I could feel the temperature of the waves that slapped at her as she walked into the water.

This is very cool.


However, an errant moth interrupted Susan and Brian’s encore, Reynaldo Hahn’s “À Chloris,” and so this time, the song didn’t make me cry, as it did in Brussels. So there are sometimes liabilities to performing outdoors.


I am not so stupid as to try to put Susan’s voice (or anyone’s) into words. It can’t be done satisfactorily — at least, not by me. You will have to listen for yourself.


Susan has what is probably the cutest nose in the history of opera. Her nose does not explain her genius, however; it merely adorns it.

Biker Babe: Susan, seen here at Lyric Opera of Chicago,
is her own best energy source.