Tue. Feb 7th, 2023

As she packed her suitcase Monday, Othalie Graham did not sing or hum the words to several Wagner arias that she will perform Saturday at the Empress Theatre in Vallejo. She spoke the German text aloud or ran the words, among them “Dich teure Halle” (You, dear hall) and “Du bist der Lenz” (You are spring), through her mind.

By all accounts, the Philadelphia area-based soprano, who will sing four Wagnerian arias during the Vallejo Center for the Arts’ “Greatest Wagner Concert Ever!” goes to her many recitals or opera productions in the U.S. or overseas well prepared and with an open mind to “find new things” about a particular song or role.

“This will be a new conductor (Thomas Conlin) and a new orchestra (The Vallejo Festival Orchestra),” she said during a telephone interview Monday morning. “And any time I walk out on stage and sing Wagner, this will be the greatest Wagner concert ever. I’ve been practicing with my (voice) coach. I’ll be ready when I get there.”

Graham, married and mother to a son, is a dramatic soprano. In the opera universe, this means she is suited for Wagner’s music, which most of the time requires its soprano leads to sing with jolts of power, in voices that tend to be heavy, dark and less agile but with plenty of heft, thrust and weight.

“It’s definitely powerful,” she said of her vocal range, which is also a perfect fit for one of her signature roles, as the lead in Puccini’s “Turandot.” “I don’t have one of the big darker voices. Mine is a higher, leaner sound.”

She likens her sound to that of her opera heroine, Swedish soprano Birgit Nilsson, whose voice of unparalleled power is still widely considered the gold standard for opera’s dramatic roles.

Internationally known dramatic soprano Othalie Graham of Philadelphia, seen as Minnie in a production of Puccini's "Girl of the Golden West," with tenor Roy Cornelius Smith as Dick Johnson, will perform several Wagner arias Saturday during the Vallejo Center for the Arts' "Greatest Wagner Concert Ever!" at Empress Theatre in Vallejo. (Photo by Reed Hummel)
Internationally known dramatic soprano Othalie Graham of Philadelphia, seen as Minnie in a production of Puccini’s “Girl of the Golden West,” with tenor Roy Cornelius Smith as Dick Johnson, will perform several Wagner arias Saturday during the Vallejo Center for the Arts’ “Greatest Wagner Concert Ever!” at Empress Theatre in Vallejo. (Photo by Reed Hummel)

“My voice is definitely rich and beautiful, but I don’t try to make it something it’s not,” added Graham, a Toronto, Canada, native, the daughter of Jamaican-born father and Canadian mother.

Calling herself “a singer who acts,” she said the audience should not expect the thunder of a spear-carrying Brunnhilde from Wagner’s famed “Die Walkure” opera in the four-opera “Ring” cycle, but, in collaboration with Conlin, arias that highlight “a shimmering, higher sound,” such as “Dich teure Halle,” the character Elizabeth’s tune from “Tannhauser,” the “Liebestod” (Love death) from “Tristan and Isolde,” “Du bist der Lenz” and “Der Manner Sippe” (My husband’s kinsmen), the character Sieglinde’s songs from “Die Walkure.”

While Wagner remains a controversial composer in terms of his personal life and socio-political views, the 19th-century German composer “changed how opera was done,” Graham said of his appeal, adding that his operas tend to be “through-composed,” without noticeable breaks and often seem to lack a tonal center. To this day, Wagner’s “Der Ring des Nibelungen,” his epic, 16-hour, four-part music drama, is considered one of world’s greatest cultural achievements.

Wagnerian singers spend “hours and hours onstage,” requiring performers to be “vocal athletes,” said Graham, adding, “You have to do that in ‘Turandot’ and (Verdi’s) ‘Aida,’ too.”

While the United States is beginning to emerge from a two-year pandemic that included shutdowns and slowdowns, she said her professional life was “incredibly difficult” during that time.

“I had no work,” said Graham, who this year performed in “Cavalleria Rusticana” with the Vancouver Opera; sang Verdi and Strauss with the Traverse (Mich.) Symphony; sang the role of Freia in “Das Rheingold” with the Nashville Opera; and sang the lead in a concert version of “Turandot” with the Evansville (Ind.) Symphony Orchestra, among others.

During the early months of the pandemic, she cared for her mother, ailing from cancer, and recalled “the refrigerated trucks” housing dead COVID patients in New York City and Philadelphia. “Not having any work was a disaster,” she said.

Like many opera singers, Graham continues to work with a vocal coach “who has a good set of ears.”

“You go to a coach who knows the repertoires,” she added. “Sometimes to more than one,” to keep her voice in good shape week to week, month to month, year to year.

Addressing the issue of casting Black singers in traditional roles for white singers, Graham believes “things are getting better” for minority singers but “we don’t want people to be colorblind.”

Citing her work with companies in Michigan, Ohio and North Carolina, she said, “Yes, things are getting better but we still have a long way to go.”

Still, she said “nibbles” from major opera companies, among them San Francisco, The Met, Houston Grand, and Chicago Lyric have been nonexistent, somewhat surprising since Graham is known for her commitment to Wagnerian repertoire. A Boston Globe critic, reviewing one of her performances, noted her “timbre and power were thrilling – with a steely ring from top to bottom.”

Graham (Contributed photo -Othalie Graham)
Graham (Contributed photo -Othalie Graham)

Reflecting on her finest moment as an opera singer, in a particular performance, on a particular night, Graham said, “I think it’s probably singing in Sicily,” with Italian tenor Marcello Giordani in a staging of “Aida” in an ancient Greek amphitheater that seated thousands.

“The audience really wants you to do well,” she recalled. “You have to feel the audience. It was 10,000 degrees. I was in puddles of sweat, but the humidity is great for your voice. Everything worked. The high C. There was dead silence when I finished “O patria mia” (Oh, my homeland). I thought, ‘Uh, oh!’ Then they erupted in bravas. I could have fainted. At the very end of the opera, we walked out together. I burst into tears because it was so emotionally overwhelming. I really felt great. Those are moments you don’t forget.”

Besides Graham’s arias, the concert also will include excerpts from “Lohengrin,” “The Flying Dutchman” and “Die Meistersinger von Nuremberg.”

Conlin has led symphonic and operatic performances on five continents. His recording of American composer George Crumb’s orchestral masterpiece, “Star-Child,” with the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra, Chorus and soloists earned a Grammy Award, and his recordings of the piano concertos of Brazilian composer Camargo Guarnieri have been praised in American and international publications.

The Vallejo Festival Orchestra debuted in 2020 at the Vallejo Center for the Arts’ presentation at the Empress Theatre of “Three Tenors! – the Next Generation.”

Vallejo Center for the Arts
“Greatest Wagner Concert Ever!”
7:30 p.m. Saturday
Empress Theatre
330 Virginia St., Vallejo
Tickets: $25 to $113.40
Reserved seating only, at https://www.ticketfairy.com/event/the-greatest-wagner-concert-ever-15jan2022
(707) 552-2400

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