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RENÉE FLEMING AND SUSAN GRAHAM—DIVA PALS

HERE’S A celebration of two U.S. divas, each beautiful, charming, at ease and amazingly competent in her art. What’s more, the two have been the best of diva pals.

At left, Renée Fleming, Pennsylvania-born 1959, lyric soprano. Image from Limelight. At right, Susan Graham, New Mexico-born 1960, Texas-raised, mezzo-soprano. Image from Opera News.

Renée Fleming is the daughter of two music teachers. She was born in Indiana, Pennsylvania (birthplace of actor Jimmy Stewart as well). She grew up in Rochester, New York, and began her music studies at the State University of New York at Potsdam.

Renée won a Fulbright Scholarship that enabled her to continue her studies in Europe. Later, she sang in New York City jazz clubs to pay for further studies at the Juilliard School. In 1988, at age 29, Renée won a Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions competition. Her debut with a major opera company was in 1988 with the Houston Grand Opera.

Among the 10 other winners that year was a 28-year-old mezzo-soprano named Susan Graham. Susan was born in Roswell, New Mexico, and raised in Midlands, Texas. She’s a graduate of Texas Tech University and the Manhattan School of Music. Susan made her international debut at Britain’s Covent Garden in 1994.

Over the years, the two have become good friends. They have performed together, both at the Metropolitan Opera and in national tours, including a 2013 recital of French music, a speciality of Graham, who was named a Chevalier, and later, a Commandeur dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government.

Susan says, “Renée and I have done a lot of shows together and I’m like an auntie to her children. We’ve been through relationships and endings of relationships together.”

Fleming and Graham, in conversation. Image from Carnegie Hall Perspectives.

They joke that, as both are blonde divas, they’ve been confused for one another. In a delightful chat about this, Renee says to Susan, “Well, you’ve just received a piece of my underwear from the Paris Opera.”

They laugh and Susan hastens to explain, “Before we go too far with that, let’s clarify: It was part of a costume, a foundation of a costume, and they sent it to me with a note, Madame Fleming, all in French, ‘Here is the piece of costume you requested….”

Both have had leading roles in Der Rosenkavalier, Strauss’s comic opera recently mentioned here at SimanaitisSays. Soprano Fleming is the perfect Marschallin, the aristocratic woman having an affair with Octavian, a young officer sung as a “trouser role” by Graham. The mezzo-soprano’s comic sense comes to the fore when masquerading as chambermaid Mariandel in confounding the boorish Baron Ochs.

Der Rosenkavalier Act I begins with an extended orchestral passage as the Marschallin and her lover Octavian lounge in the Marschallin’s oversize bed. In another Met interview, Susan shared an operatic secret about this scene: During this extended orchestral passage, the two chat about how things are going, Renee’s kids and the like. At one time, they had a joke that they spent more time in bed with each other than with anyone else.

Der Rosenkavalier, Act I Scene 1. At left the Marschallin, portrayed by Renée Fleming. At right, her lover Octavian, portrayed by Susan Graham. Image from the Metropolitan Opera.

These two are genuinely special divas.

I’ve enjoyed Renée Fleming in several Met HD productions, including another Strauss opera, Capriccio. This final opera of Strauss is subtitled “A Conversation Piece for Music” exploring the question of which is the greater art, poetry or music. Fleming is perfect in the role of The Countess, torn between her two suitors, Olivier the Poet and Flamand the Musician.

Neither Strauss nor I will give away the ending.

I’ve seen Susan Graham in several Met HDs as well. She was the Countess Geschwitz in Alban Berg’s Lulu. In a variation of the trouser role, the Countess Geschwitz is a cross-dressing woman of mixed proclivities who’s ultimately stabbed by Jack the Ripper.

Susan Graham portrays Countess Geschwitz in Alban Berg’s Lulu. Image from Billevesées.

Such a role for a nice kid from Midlands, Texas.

This coming Saturday, May 13, 2017, Renée Fleming will star in the Met HD Live performance of Der Rosenkavalier. The Met HD Live is broadcast worldwide, with my local curtain time at 9:30 a.m. Pacific.

A bit of diva drama was generated on April 5, 2017, by a report in The New York Times. It read, “The Diva Departs: Renée Fleming’s Farewell to Opera,” implying that her final performance would be this Saturday’s Der Rosenkavalier.

Within a day of the April 5, 2017, posting, it became clear that the headline was misleading. This Saturday, it turns out, “may be her last public appearance as a singer of staged opera,” according to ClassicalMPR: “She tells the Times she’ll still give concerts, and make records. She’s also hoping to spend more time on projects like her creative consultant role at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and a possible internet start-up for streaming arts programs.”

I’d bet Renée and Susan will remain diva pals as well. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2017

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