One thing you'll likely never get from Susan Graham is a routine performance. Or a routine recital program.
The stellar mezzo-soprano, who was born in New Mexico and raised in Texas, enjoys global fame not just for her plush voice and incisive interpretations, but also her flair for presenting a wide range of repertoire in fresh ways.
A result of that inquisitiveness can be heard when Graham makes her Baltimore debut April 23 presented by the Shriver Hall Concert Series.
It wouldn't be surprising for a vocal recital to feature Robert Schumann's "Frauenliebe und -leben," a cycle of eight songs with texts by Adelbert von Chamisso tracing a woman's experiences with love and loss. But Graham's approach to this richly lyrical material couldn't be more uncommon.
"If you sing the eight songs the usual way," Graham, 56, says, "it all happens very fast. It's: 'I'm in love; I had a baby; now my husband's dead.' We've taken this amazing song cycle and added songs from other cultures. They all help tell the story of a woman's life, from first love to engagement and marriage, to wedding night, motherhood and widowhood."
Each of the original eight Schumann songs gets two or three companion pieces in this presentation, providing different perspectives on thoughts or events described in the original. The extra 19 items include various time periods, styles and languages, expanding the roughly 25-minute "Frauenliebe" cycle into a full-length concert.
This concept was developed a couple years ago by Graham's longtime collaborator, the Scottish-born pianist Malcolm Martineau.
"Susan had never sung 'Frauenliebe' before, and she told me if she was going to do it she wanted to do it differently," Martineau, 57, says. "So I started looking for a way to flesh out the character in the Schumann songs."
To go with the first of those songs, which describes love at first sight, Martineau chose a piece by Richard Strauss describing that same sensation and another by Edvard Grieg "about two people on their first date who don't know what to say to each other," the pianist says.
The first half of the program ends as the women in the Schumann cycle reaches her wedding day.
"Susan has a fantastic spiel about this," Martineau says. "She tells the audience just before intermission, 'You can imagine what happens next.' After intermission, before we do the Schumann song where the woman tells her husband that she's pregnant, we have two somewhat erotic French songs to let everyone know why she's pregnant."
The poems that Schumann set so eloquently to music strike some contemporary ears as objectionable, especially such pre-feminism lines as: "I want to serve him, live for him, belong to him entirely ... and find myself transfigured in his radiance."
"Yes, it's old-fashioned," Graham says, "but you have to take into account that the girl worked as a governess for an aristocrat and saw him as way above her station. And when he did fall for her, she started ruling the roost. In fact, she was quite a feminist — she saw something she wanted and she got it. How's that for spin?"
Martineau adds that it was "very radical at the time" for poems to be written from a woman's viewpoint.
"And she's not a shrinking violet at all," the pianist says. "When she tells her husband she's pregnant, she says that the child's crib will be at the side of her bed. In those days, it would have been common to have the child far away in another room with a nanny."
Given all the thought put into interpreting the Schumann cycle, and the effort to provide a broader context with the additional songs, it's no wonder that Graham and Martineau have enjoyed enthusiastic responses to this program on both sides of the Atlantic.
In addition to her concert work, the mezzo remains active at major opera houses. She's a particular favorite at the Metropolitan Opera, where she will participate in a gala concert next month celebrating the company's 50 years at Lincoln Center and star in Franz Lehar's "The Merry Widow" next season.
A few weeks ago, Washington National Opera audiences witnessed Graham's galvanizing portrayal of a killer's mother in Jake Heggie's "Dead Man Walking." At that opera's premiere in San Francisco in 2000, she likewise did sensational work in the central role of death penalty opponent Sister Helen Prejean — Heggie wrote that role especially for Graham.
Martineau has a simple explanation for his colleague's stature.
"Susan has one of the greatest voices in the world at the moment," the pianist says. "And she has great intelligence and imagination."
Not everyone is impressed, though. Some years ago, at Indiana University on the day she was to give a recital there, an incognito Graham spotted students looking at a poster advertising her performance. She asked if any of them planned to attend.
"I said, 'I hear she's pretty good.' One of them said, 'No, I have a party.' I think there were maybe 30 voice majors out of hundreds at the school who came that night," Graham says. "It's so strange that students would not want to attend a recital by someone who is actually doing this, living this life of a professional."
The mezzo breaks into a disarming smile.
"I challenge voice students in Baltimore to show up," she says.
When not on the road, Graham savors her new role offstage.
The singer, who used to consider herself married to her career, married Clay Brakeley, a friend from college days in Texas, last September. They had dated, but went their separate ways for decades until a chance reconnection.
"It's so new for me, having a domestic life," Graham says. "And now I'm a step mom. They're the greatest kids ever."
Although she makes more time for that domestic life, the mezzo still loves singing. Recitals hold particular appeal. Unlike many an opera star, Graham does not pack her concerts with popular arias.
"She does a real song recital, not what I call a diva recital," Martineau says. "And she demystifies the songs. When she talks about them, she makes you feel like she's your best friend."
Graham initially dreaded the recital format.
"I was terrified of them early on because there's nowhere to hide," she says. "But I realized I could have fun. I can make eye contact in a recital. I can draw you into my world, make you feel what I'm feeling. It's like a party, and I've invited everyone into my living room."
If you go
Mezzo-soprano Susan Graham gives a recital with pianist Malcolm Martineau at 5:30 p.m. April 23 at Shriver Hall, Johns Hopkins University, 3400 N. Charles St. Tickets are $10 to $42. Call 410-516-7164, or go to shriverconcerts.org.