Move over Ursula. There's a new queen of the sea, and this one is singing entirely in French — no mermaids or witchcraft required. Claude Debussy's "La mer" as well as Hector Berlioz' "Overture to Béatrice et Bénédict" and "Les nuits d’eté" and Roussel's "Suite for The Spider's Feast" will be the highlight at the Houston Symphony this weekend for the presentations of La Mer + Susan Graham, running Friday through Sunday at Jones Hall.
As sensuous and bewitching as the sea by which it’s inspired, Debussy’s La Mer stands as one of the most stunning achievements in symphonic music. Acclaimed French conductor Ludovic Morlot returns to interpret this immortal masterpiece, music of majesty, mystery and primordial power. A luminous all-French program spotlights world-renowned mezzo-soprano Susan Graham in Berlioz’ poignant reveries of love and loss.
"'Les nuits d’eté' is one of my most performed pieces. It really is the piece with which I made my international mark in French music," Graham said. "It’s a piece that is extremely close to my heart, and it’s the French music I’m best known for."
Literally translated, the show title means "summer nights," yet, despite its title, Graham says it’s not what most think of as a frothy bon bon.
"Some of the the songs are about the loss of a loved one, death, or the angelic presence of a lost loved one. However, the first and last song are frothier and light hearted. The first one is a sexy little jaunt through the woods, and the last one is a sexy trip on a boat to an uncharted island. It’s an island where love never ends," she added.
The songs in between are centered around lost love, providing a counterpoint to the jovial bookends that seem so effervescent.
Graham's appearance at the show marks the adoptive Texans' return to the state she calls home, but France and the French language are always close to her.
"I was an adolescent in Midland, and when I was 15, I started taking voice lessons. I had a wonderful voice teacher here in Midland, and the first song I performed was Gabriel Fauré's 'Après Un Rêve,'" she said. "I loved the subtlety of French music. It’s very close to classical music. It’s spare, and it's not overt or overblown; it's raked in a little bit. Plus, the language is elegant and exotic and glamorous."
The fascination with French music and singing seems to have worked out well for her.
Hailed as “an artist to treasure” by The New York Times, Graham rose to the highest echelon of international performers within just a few years of her professional debut, mastering an astonishing range of repertoire and genres along the way. Her operatic roles span four centuries, from Monteverdi’s Poppea to Sister Helen Prejean in Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, which was written especially for her. A familiar face at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, she also maintains a strong international presence at such key venues as Paris’ Théâtre du Châtelet, the Sydney Opera House, Santa Fe Opera and the Hollywood Bowl.
She won a Grammy Award for her collection of Ives songs, and her recital repertoire is so broad that 14 composers from Purcell to Sondheim are represented on her most recent Onyx album, "Virgins, Vixens & Viragos." This distinctly American artist has also been recognized throughout her career as one of the foremost exponents of French vocal music. Although a native of Texas, she was awarded the French government’s prestigious “Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur,” both for her popularity as a performer in France and in honor of her commitment to French music.
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Be it Paris, Texas or Paris, France, Graham always has a place to call home, and she even has her own honorary day.
"I come back to Texas all the time to visit my family. To come back to Texas is coming home," she said. "Midland has a Susan Graham Day. I was so honored. The Midland Opera Theater has a competition they support [for up and coming theater talent]. It’s fabulous. And they named the day after me. Texas Tech has a scholarship named after me. I’m a daughter of Texas."
A daughter of Texas, she certainly is, and for this weekend, she's also the star of its theater scene.
Debussy's La mer + Susan Graham takes place Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. at Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana Street. For tickets and information, visit houstonsymphony.org or call 713-224-7275. Tickets range $35 - $125.