Susan Graham a happy camper as the 'Duchess'
This June 2013 photo provided by the The Santa Fe Opera shows Susan Graham as the Grand Duchess performing with Jonathan Michie, playing Prince Paul, during a rehearsal with the chorus in an Offenbach comedy, "The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein," at the Santa Fe Opera in Santa Fe, N.M. (AP Photo/The Santa Fe Opera, Ken Howard)
SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Ask Susan Graham how she reacted when Santa Fe Opera first offered her the title role in Offenbach's "The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein."
"Do I still have the bruises?" she replies, extending her right arm in jest. "I didn't want to do it. They twisted my arm for two years!"
Eventually she gave in, and this summer she's headlining a campy new production of the 1867 operetta, which satirizes militaristic war-mongering and political corruption and depicts a royal ruler whose sex drive is in overdrive. Director Lee Blakeley has updated the setting from a fictional 18th century duchy to 20th century America and written new English-language dialogue, filled with mild double entendres (think "privates on parade").
Graham, one of America's leading mezzo-sopranos for nearly a quarter-century, has scored some of her greatest triumphs in serious roles (Dido in Berlioz's "Les Troyens," Sesto in Mozart's "La Clemenza di Tito"), but she has also done light opera, from Lehar's "The Merry Widow" to Offenbach's "La Belle Helene."
So why the reluctance to take on the duchess?
"I had the impression, falsely as it turned out, that it's for a 'woman of a certain age,' Graham recalled during an interview at her home nestled in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, a short drive from the opera house. "I was still singing Octavian (in Richard Strauss's "Der Rosenkavalier") and playing a 17-year-old boy. I wasn't ready to be the Grand Dame of Operetta."
This June 2013 photo provided by the The Santa Fe Opera shows Susan Graham with Paul Appleby, as Fritz, during a rehearsal of an Offenbach comedy, "The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein," at the Santa Fe Opera in Santa Fe, N.M. (AP Photo/The Santa Fe Opera, Ken Howard)
In fact, in Offenbach's original, the duchess is a young woman, but the role has often been played by singers in their 50s. Posters for the Santa Fe production exploit the age angle with a picture of a mountain lion wearing a crown, topped by the slogan, "The Ultimate Cougar."
Graham was still in her 40s when the role was first offered, and she didn't relish the idea of playing an older woman who pursues a handsome cadet only to lose him to his young sweetheart.
"At that time I was still dating younger men," she said. "I WAS the grand duchess, and I wasn't ready to play myself on stage quite yet. Then I got into this very serious, very stable relationship with someone who's closer to my age, and I thought, OK, I feel more grown up now, I'm fine with this. And then of course by the time we're putting it on, I'm in my 50s."