Reporting from Berkeley—Susan Graham and Nicholas McGegan have never collaborated before. But when they get together, the Texas-raised mezzo-soprano and British conductor behave like an old married couple. On a recent afternoon in Berkeley, the home base of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, a leading period performance ensemble that McGegan has directed for many years, the duo engaged in lively banter about their first artistic partnership -- a six-concert California tour of works by the 17th century English composer Henry Purcell.
Graham is known as much for her pants roles in Baroque operas as for her championing of French and contemporary American song. Celebrating Purcell's 350th birthday, the Baroque Orchestra's "Passion of Dido" program features the versatile mezzo as the ill-fated heroine in "Dido and Aeneas" (1689). Joining Graham, McGegan, the orchestra and the Philharmonia Chorale are soloists William Berger, Cyndia Sieden, Céline Ricci, Jill Grove and Brian Thorsett.
You've known each other for years. What brings you together as collaborators now?
Susan Graham: I've always wanted to work with Nic. I've long been a fan of his musical aesthetic. I love this piece we're doing together now.
Nicholas McGegan: And I always want to work with the best singers.
SG: Unfortunately, you got me instead.
NM: Ha-ha. Now you get to die six times on stage over the course of two weeks.
SG: I'm excited about that, as I don't usually get to die -- or get the guy.
NM: Usually you are the guy.
SG: That's true. In "Rosenkavalier," which I did recently at the Met, I am the guy.
What's the significance of performing "Dido" on Purcell's 350th birthday?
NM: It makes me wish the composer had lived to 50 instead of dying at 34. Apparently his wife locked him out one night when he was late back from the pub. He caught a cold, and that was the end of him.
SG: Mrs. Purcell was a serious lady.
NM: Yes. Mind you, I don't think Mr. Purcell was a first-time offender. He wrote about 50 drinking songs, most of which are unprintable.
Why do people respond to "Dido" so strongly today?
NM: "Dido" moves from comedy to tragedy so fast. It achieves in just 50 minutes what it takes most other operas three of four hours to do.
SG: Purcell wrote "Dido" for students at a girls' school in London. Is it true or apocryphal that he composed the piece as an admonition to the young ladies -- as a warning to be wary of men, that they'll break your heart and leave you to die?
NM: He mainly wrote it for money. But it's true that Aeneas is an amazing lounge lizard.