SANTA FE, N.M. — 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."
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."
She said she's happy with the result: "It's a little bit raunchy, which I love, and I get to sing some beautiful melodies in French."
Santa Fe has always been important to Graham, and it's here that her career took off. Born in Roswell, N.M., she moved to Midland, Texas, when she was 12, studied voice at Texas Tech and then went to New York at age 25 with the goal of being accepted as an apprentice at the Santa Fe Opera.
"I auditioned two years in a row, and was rejected two years in a row," she laughs.
But she did win the Metropolitan Opera's National Council Auditions in 1988 (along with future stars Renee Fleming and Ben Heppner) and the following summer got hired to sing two small roles at Santa Fe – Flora in Verdi's "La Traviata" and Annina in "Der Rosenkavalier."
The next year she was back as Dorabella in Mozart's "Cosi fan tutte" and the Composer in Strauss's "Ariadne auf Naxos." A year later came Cherubino in Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro." She's returned periodically ever since, either to sing a leading role or perform in concert.
Meanwhile, her career took flight, with debuts at the Met and in European capitals from London to Paris to Vienna. Graham is noted for the wide range of her repertoire – from early works by Monteverdi and Handel to new operas by Tobias Picker and John Harbison – and she also is an acclaimed recitalist.
Now, about to turn 53, Graham speaks with disarming candor about the challenges of "sort of planning out the last 10 years" of her career.
"The repertoire that I'm going into is a very tricky path to walk," she said. "It took me a long time to grasp that concept, when there's much more behind you than there is in front of you."
Besides the Grand Duchess, new roles Graham is taking on include Tina in Dominick Argento's "The Aspern Papers," which she recently sang in Dallas; Prince Orlofsky in Johann Strauss's "Die Fledermaus," which she'll perform in Houston this fall; and Sycorax in the Baroque pastiche "The Enchanted Island" at the Met. In a further change of pace, she'll star as Anna in Rodgers and Hammerstein's "The King and I" in Paris next June, a production also to be directed by Blakeley.
She's also looking at supporting roles like the Countess Geschwitz in Berg's "Lulu" and Clairon in Richard Strauss's "Capriccio."
Being back at Santa Fe has brought home some of the bittersweet aspects of aging.
"This is the place of my youth," she said. "I sang here every summer, and fantastic things happened to me."
She bemoans the fact that the current crop of apprentices, who perform in the show with her, "insist on calling me `Miss Graham.' They won't call me `Susie,' they just won't! And they say, `Oh, my parents got me my first recording of you when I was 10.'
"I know they're half my age, and it's weird because I used to BE them," she said. "To acknowledge where I am now is fine everywhere else in the world, but when I'm here there's this kind of disconnect. It's like running the videotape back."
"The Grand Duchess," which opened the season June 28, continues in repertory through Aug. 24, along with four other operas: Rossini's "La Donna del Lago" starring Joyce di Donato and Lawrence Brownlee; "Oscar," a new opera by Theodore Morrison based on the life of Oscar Wilde and starring countertenor David Daniels; and revivals of "The Marriage of Figaro" and "La Traviata."