She enters the room carrying a green bike helmet. This is Susan Graham, world-renowned mezzo-soprano who's in Houston to sing the role of Prince Orlovsky in the upcoming Houston Grand Opera production of the comic operetta Die Fledermaus ("The Bat").
Graham bikes, she says, as part of the work she does to stay in shape for her trouser roles (where her character is a man).
Saying that she's always enjoyed the athleticism of being able to portray a man onstage, Graham explains: "You can be saucy and sloppy. You're leaping onto and off the furniture and we have to jump out of windows. And it's fun to swan around in a white tuxedo."
It's Prince Orlovsky's costume ball and everyone is in disguise and according to Graham, desperately trying to reinvent themselves. This version of Die Fledermaus has been reset to the 1930s which makes it more chic and more relevant, Graham says.
"We're in the 1930s post stock market crash and everyone is frenzied and desperate to create an alternative reality, desperate to be something they are not."
The music by "The Waltz King" Johann Strauss II "will be familiar whether you know it or not," she promises thanks to cartoons, commercials, and snippets of movies. Baritone Liam Bonner sings the Eisenstein role, Wendy Bryn Harmer the Rosalinde and Laura Claycomb is Adele.
Graham, who has been covered in honors in recent years, is the 2013-14 Lynn Wyatt Great Artist here to sing the trouser role of Prince Orlovsky, a role she hasn't performed since college (Texas Tech and the Manhattan School of Music) but was ready to do again.
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"Orlovsky: he's a prince, he's one of those spoiled, bored entitled kind of guys," says Graham. Originally Graham was set to sing in a different opera for HGO this time, but plans changed and they offered her the Die Fledermaus part. She says she actually is enjoying it; it's not as difficult a part as say the title role in The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein she sang in Santa Fe this summer. "It's not a huge role and it's nice to not have to carry the show.Most of the time I have to do the heavy lifting." She described the Grand Duchess performance as "many many arias all in French and at 7,000 feet elevation."
This is the first time in three decades that HGO is putting on Die Fledermaus, this time using an original production by Opera Australia which is sung in English, but with projected text.
Asked why she likes opera, Graham responded: "Because it's larger than life. It gives a voice to situations and feeling and emotions that cannot just be described in words. There's no choice but to sing it."
Die Fledermaus opens October 25 and runs through November 10. 7:30 p.m. October 25, November 2 and 8, 2 p.m. October 27 and November 10. Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas Ave. For information, call 713-228-6737 or visit houstongrandopera.org. $18-$370.25.