Susan Graham grew up in New Mexico and Texas, in an extended family of ranchers, stunt pilots and rodeo-riders. One uncle, who pioneered the use of small planes in ranching, taught her his rule of life from the day she was able to walk.
"I remember when I was three years old, he would stand me up on his lap, and hold me by the shoulders, and look right in my face and say, 'You can do anything you set your mind to! Anything!' " she says, her relatively placeless American accent veering into a southwestern twang. "He told me that over and over again. It was typical of that whole culture I grew up in."
His advice, and her own talent and effort, have taken her to the world's major opera houses, as one of the leading mezzo-sopranos of our time. For the next three weeks she stars as a confused priestess in a Canadian Opera Company production of Gluck's Iphigénie en Tauride, but Graham has no doubt about how she came to be what she is.
"New Mexico and Texas have almost everything to do with who I am and the kind of artist I am. There's something about them that instilled in me a feeling of limitlessness, and the encouragement to aim high," she says, referring both to the wide horizon and the region's mixed culture. "The reason I went into opera in the first place was that it seemed impossible to me. You have to learn languages, master 400 years of musical style, create characters who may have lived hundreds of years ago. How could anybody do all that, and memorize all that, and sing for three hours and not collapse?"
Those were her thoughts, more or less, as she sat in her high-school auditorium in Midland, Tex., absorbing the first opera she had ever seen: a touring production of Mozart's Cosi fan tutte. She was 17, and had just landed the leading role in a high-school production of The Sound of Music.
"Despina [in Cosi]captured my imagination, because she was funny, she got to sing Mozart, and she got to drink hot chocolate," Graham said, letting out a big gurgling laugh. "Before that day, I didn't know this kind of opera life existed."
Three decades later, she's intimately acquainted with it, and with a variety of roles that include a few upon which she has made a mark like no one else alive. One of those is Octavian, in Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier; another is Iphigénie. She has sung the latter in four different incarnations, including a realistic Stephen Wadsworth production at the Met last winter. Conceptually and visually, she says, that successful show was far from Canadian Robert Carsen's stripped-down, open-ended production at the COC.
"In this show, the dancers shoulder a lot of the storytelling," Graham says. "The singers, in my feeling, enter the psychological world."
Gluck leaves ample room for both. The opera tells what happens after the title character is spirited away from her father Agamemnon's sacrificial altar by the goddess Diana, who installs her on an island as a priestess in charge of sacrificing all outsiders. One of these is Iphigénie's brother Oreste.
"I've talked with Robert [Carsen]a lot about this" – this is their fourth revival together since the production debuted in Chicago in 2006 – "and our assumption is that Iphigénie is a classic case of arrested development," Graham says. "She was ripped from her father, from her mother and brother, and there's a certain amount of naïveté and trauma there. Many years later, she's a grown woman, but with the sheltered sensibility of a young girl."
It's an unstable state of mind, presented through music that Graham finds "very gratifying to sing. It feels like talking, sometimes, because the stories are so vivid. It's like telling a very big story and speaking with grand emotions. And singing French is very comfortable for me; it feels good on the palate."
At 51, Graham is thinking carefully about her next moves in opera and as a concert singer, but says she's far from scaling back. She has a challenging thematic recital program on the horizon (which she'll sing at Toronto's Koerner Hall on Jan. 28) and has taken a good look at the roles of the Marschallin (in Der Rosenkavalier) and even Kundry (in Wagner's Parsifal).
"I've flirted with the idea of Kundry, but I would have to do some very serious dating before I could commit," she says. Serious dating would be several concert performances of those roles with an orchestra. She'd also like to work up a cabaret program, and do more operetta and musicals, including Kiss Me, Kate.
Graham has a work home in New York, a partner in Los Angeles and a refuge in Santa Fe. She likes to hike in the hills there, eat the New Mexican take on Mexican cuisine, and play Debussy on her grand piano.
"My scores and my gowns live in New York, and my heart and my peace live in New Mexico," she says. Her uncle, the flying rancher, would have understood.
The Canadian Opera Company's Iphigénie en Tauride opens Thursday and continues at the Four Seasons Centre until Oct. 15 ( www.coc.ca).