ST. LOUIS — Many singers in their late 50s begin to retreat from the demanding world of staged opera. They teach or give recitals. Some even join the cast of “Carousel” on Broadway.
“Good gravy!” she exclaimed recently at the Chase Park Plaza Hotel here, where she has taken up residence while singing the title role in Marc Blitzstein’s “Regina” (1949) at Opera Theater of St. Louis. “It’s exhausting.”
The set of “Regina,” which runs through June 24 and is based on Lillian Hellman’s play “The Little Foxes,” features as its centerpiece a grand staircase. Regina — a ruthless matriarch who outplays her siblings and forces the death of her husband in a scheme to get, as she calls it, “big rich” — climbs up and down the stairs repeatedly while barking spoken text, singing breathless orders and, at one point, belting a high C.
Fans who have grown accustomed to Graham’s sweetness, both onstage and off, might be caught off guard by “Regina”; it demands a vocal ugliness that would drive some singing teachers insane. And her soothing stage presence takes a turn for the venomous here.
“The character fits me scarily well,” she said. “I must have an inner Regina.”
If Graham is exhausted — and she is, sometimes sleeping for nearly 12 hours after rehearsals — she doesn’t show it. Local reviews have been laudatory, and her voice sounds as powerful and assured as ever. In her trademark way, she somehow manages to make the irredeemable Regina sympathetic, even tragic.
“Susan’s still in her prime after 30 years,” said Stephen Lord, the production’s conductor and the festival’s music director emeritus.
Casting this opera has always been a challenge — one that has deterred companies from staging it. “The only reason to do ‘Regina’ is if you have the people to do it,” Lord said. Opera Theater’s lineup is starry: James Morris, a Wagner veteran, is singing the role of Regina’s brother Ben; Ron Raines, a Tony nominee for the most recent Broadway revival of “Follies,” is her other brother, Oscar; and Metropolitan Opera fixture Susanna Phillips plays Oscar’s wife, Birdie, the story’s tragic heart.
“If you don’t like this ‘Regina,’ you don’t like ‘Regina,'” Graham said. “This is about a good a showing of it as you can get.”
“Regina” is one of those American operas — like George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” and Kurt Weill’s “Street Scene” — that had their premieres on Broadway and have faced uphill battles at opera houses. It doesn’t help that Blitzstein’s score dabbles in ragtime, spirituals and parlor music alongside more conventional styles.
Yet that melting-pot approach is why “Regina,” Lord said, “embodies everything American opera could be.” Blitzstein, sometimes at the risk of minstrelsy, absorbed the musical voice of the South, where the opera takes place, while writing symphonic music with the economy and directness of Copland. The score influenced some of Blitzstein’s closest friends, including Leonard Bernstein, who not-so-subtly nods to it in “Maria” from “West Side Story” and in the “Auto-da-Fé” scene of “Candide.”
When “Regina” had its premiere on Broadway — for reasons that were strictly commercial — the word “opera” was stripped from the score and marquee because producers worried it would scare away audiences. With so much popular music and spoken dialogue, there was no consensus among critics on what to call it. Blitzstein settled the debate with his published score, which said “Regina: An Opera.”
The original Broadway production received cool reviews from theater critics but largely positive ones from music writers who came to its defense too late to save it. They couldn’t help, nor could Bernstein or a handful of other luminaries like Jerome Robbins and Tennessee Williams, who took out an ad in The New York Times urging people to buy tickets.
In the 1950s “Regina” arrived at New York City Opera, with revisions that restored some sung lines that had been spoken on Broadway. Still, a flaw remained: It was far too faithful to Hellman’s script. “The Little Foxes” is talky, with convoluted, Shakespearean scheming; there’s a reason that thin plots are characteristic of a sung art form.
“It’s a bloody difficult opera to put together,” said James Robinson, Opera Theater’s artistic director, who is directing this summer’s production.
“You have to direct ‘The Little Foxes’ and an opera at the same time,” he added. “Everything is so incredibly tied into a complex fabric that you have to make sure that the dialogue is at the same level as the singing, and that the singing speaks the dialogue.”
Robinson regards “Regina” as one of the great American operas, alongside Carlisle Floyd’s “Susannah” and John Adams’ “Nixon in China.” Both of those have been performed by the Metropolitan Opera, the great American opera house. “Regina” has not.
“Unfortunately the Met neglected a lot of contemporary opera for a considerable length of time,” said Peter Gelb, the company’s general manager. But, he added, “it makes sense for the Met to produce them only if we can cast them with big singers, with promotional force.”
Would Graham take her new role to New York?
“I want every opera company in America to do this piece, with this cast,” she said, before adding the caveat that the cavernous Met might not be a good fit: “It’s a very intimate piece, and it has to find the right setting.”
She thinks Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she has a home, would be perfect. So would Los Angeles Opera and the Glimmerglass Festival. “I may have been putting bugs in people’s ears,” she said with a sly smile, “but they can never be reinforced too much.”
She has grown comfortable with Regina, and with her castmates, most of whom are staying on the same floor at the hotel and hanging out at night, watching old movies in Morris’ room. The younger performers — including soprano Monica Dewey, who plays Regina’s daughter, Alexandra — have been watching Graham with the attention of eager students.
“The fact that I got to be her colleague took a lot of processing and preparation,” Dewey said, “but she has treated everybody as a neighbor. She invited me out to lunch on our first break.”
Playing the title role in “Regina” has been a homecoming for Graham, who made her professional debut at Opera Theater in Samuel Barber’s “Vanessa” 30 years ago. “There are patrons of a certain age who can remember my first performance,” she said.
From there she made a name for herself in trouser roles like Cherubino in “Le Nozze di Figaro,” as well as with ingénues like Dorabella in “Così Fan Tutte” and Charlotte in “Werther.” Another of her signature roles was Octavian in “Der Rosenkavalier,” which she said she can still sing but avoids because of it’s so physically demanding.
“Sword fighting and jumping on and off furniture — ouch!” she said, adding that when she performed the role at the Met in 2010, she logged 2 miles on her pedometer during the first act alone. “That got to be too much.”
She doesn’t perform most of those roles anymore and misses some of them — especially Charlotte — but in recent years Graham has broadened her repertory with new characters she has come to love: Didon in “Les Troyens,” for example, and — although it took a lot of getting used to — Countess Geschwitz in Alban Berg’s “Lulu.” (Gelb said she would return to the Met in “Lulu,” as well as in the coming company premiere of Jake Heggie’s “Dead Man Walking.”)
In her 50s, Graham has found herself a wife and mother for the first time. Two years ago she married her college sweetheart, Clay Brakeley, whom she had seen occasionally over the years and began dating, with trepidation, in 2010, after he and his wife separated. With Brakeley came his twins, now 12; they live outside Los Angeles.
There, Graham has joined Los Angeles Opera as the artistic adviser of its young artists program. The twins, who are in the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus, occasionally perform with the company.
“It’s all opened new chapters,” Graham said at the hotel, where her family was outside playing in the pool, adding that her life now is “more about doing things that make me happy and enriching the family life that we’re building.”
That doesn’t mean she isn’t hungry for new roles, or even new kinds of performance. As a fan of ‘70s and ‘80s ballad singers, she said she could see herself singing more cabaret: “I might do the Barbara Cook thing. Who knows?”
She does know that she isn’t interested in settling down in an academic post. (“That’s not my jam.”) And at any rate, her body isn’t telling her it’s time to start slowing down.
“I’m very grateful that my voice is still working well,” she said. “I’m still up for doing this, as long as I can.”
Graham isn’t done playing the villain either, now that she’s had a taste. Her next role debut is in “Hansel and Gretel” at Los Angeles Opera this fall. But she won’t be in the trouser role: She’ll be the Witch.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.