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Santa Fe Opera season opens with ‘Duchess,’ ‘Figaro’

Jared Bybee portrays Baron Grog and Susan Graham is the Grand Duchess in Jacques Offenbach’s “The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein” at the Santa Fe Opera. (Courtesy of Robert Godwin/the Santa Fe Opera)
Jared Bybee portrays Baron Grog and Susan Graham is the Grand Duchess in Jacques Offenbach’s “The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein” at the Santa Fe Opera. (Courtesy of Robert Godwin/the Santa Fe Opera)
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SANTA FE – Swathed in a leopard-print dress, a pair of fuschia glasses on her nose, Susan Graham resembles the cougar trumpeted in the Santa Fe Opera’s publicity for “The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein.”

But as she relaxed in the opera’s cantina, she admitted to initially feeling a tad reluctant to tackle the Jacques Offenbach role when it was first offered to her.

“Offenbach specified the duchess could be in her late 20s,” she said. But “traditionally, the role has moved into a group of ladies of a veteran vintage.”

Opera officials talked her into the part by correcting that misconception.

“They said the duchess could be vibrant and sexy,” Graham said.

Bubbly and rife with the dramatic flourishes of the stage, embroidered by a melodious laugh, Graham stars in Offenbach’s signature operetta opening on Friday, June 28. The show will mark her eighth Santa Fe production. Born in Roswell, the mezzo-soprano has sung in every major opera house in the world – from the Metropolitan to Chicago, San Francisco, Covent Garden, La Scala and Paris. She lives part-time in Santa Fe and returns whenever she can because she considers it home.

As a Texas Tech college student, she would drive to Santa Fe in the summers and buy a standing-room ticket.

“This is where I cut my teeth on opera,” she said.

She attended the prestigious Manhattan School of Music, then under the direction of SFO founder John Crosby. She auditioned twice for the opera’s apprentice program and was summarily rejected. Crosby would eventually make it up to her by selecting her as an understudy to Federica von Stade.

If you go Also coming this season
WHAT: “The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein” by OffenbachWHEN: June 28; July 3, 6, 12, 19, 30. Aug. 7, 15, 21, 24. Performances start at 8:30 p.m. through July 27; at 8 p.m. July 29-Aug. 24WHERE: The Santa Fe Opera, seven miles north of Santa Fe west of U.S. 84/285HOW MUCH: For ticket information call 800-280-4654 or 505-986-5900 or go to www.santafeopera.org Rossini’s “La Donna del Lago” opens July 13Verdi’s “La Traviata” opens July 20

The world premiere of Theodore Morrison’s “Oscar” opens July 27

“All I wanted to be was an apprentice at the Santa Fe Opera,” she said. “I think sometimes that’s why I have a career here – because of the guilt,” she added, laughing.

Graham’s duchess is a spoiled and bored aristocrat imbued with the baronial confidence of the privileged. She also is the patroness of the military academy.

“She has a lot of fun and she tends to pursue that which she cannot get,” Graham said, digging out a cellphone to show a visitor a photo of herself draped in a denim dress splashed with gilt. “The skirt has an 8-foot train,” she confided.

The duchess sets her eye on Fritz, a cadet she soon promotes to general.

“He has an unfortunate case of moral fortitude,” she explained.

“Who doesn’t love a man in uniform?” Graham continued. “And she’s got 30 of them.”

But Fritz’s heart belongs to Wanda, who becomes the opera’s conscience.

“She is like the one liberal at the Republican convention,” said Anya Matanovic, the former Santa Fe apprentice who plays her. “You have all these bloodthirsty people going off to war. She’s the one person who’s like, ‘Hold on, what are you doing here?’ Because of that, Wanda feels very much on the outside of all this intrigue.”

Of course, none of this stops the duchess from manipulating, cajoling and scheming to make Fritz her own.

Although “The Duchess” is frothy and bright, it isn’t meaningless, conductor Emmanuel Villaume said. Villaume conducted last year’s SFO production of “The Pearl Fishers.”

Emmanuel Villaume, left, conducts and Lee Blakeley directs the Santa Fe Opera production of “The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein” this summer. (Courtesy of Robert Godwin/the Santa Fe Opera)

Emmanuel Villaume, left, conducts and Lee Blakeley directs the Santa Fe Opera production of “The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein” this summer. (Courtesy of Robert Godwin/the Santa Fe Opera)

“It’s very light, but in the end it says things about society and human nature.

“Offenbach liked to play with a lot of censorship at the time,” Villaume continued. “He got in trouble and he found a way to get away with it. You don’t really believe that the cannons are real. But Offenbach is painting a picture of the dangers of dictatorship and the dangers of war. And he does get away with it by appearing frivolous.”

Villaume and Graham last worked together in a Toulouse production of the comic opera “Mignon.”

“We know each other well and it’s a real treat to have someone who is absolutely at her prime and full of charm,” he said.

The opera is in English, with the arias sung in French.

Known for her interpretations of French opera, Graham admitted struggling with melodies crammed with a turnpike’s trail of French diction.

“It’s a lot of French coming out at once,” she said. “It’s very rapid-fire French and that’s hard.”

And she has to breathe “twice as hard” because of Santa Fe’s notorious altitude.

Armed with an extensive résumé of stage time, Graham said to a colleague, “I am so glad that his stage no longer holds the terror it once held for me.

“I’m still (having a) little heart palpitation,” she added. “Opening night is looming large.”

Graham rose as a few precious raindrops dappled the cantina pavement before the swimming pool. A colleague joked that the singers should disrobe and dive in.

“Some of us used to do that in that pool,” she said, laughing.

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