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No one would mistake Carnegie Hall's grand 2,800-seat Isaac Stern Auditorium for a cozy Parisian salon. But soprano Reneé Fleming and mezzo-soprano Susan Graham will do their best to conjure such an intimate space Sunday at 8 p.m. ET as they present an evening of French songs, webcast live on this page and at WQXR.
The two singers first met in 1988 when they each won the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. Two years later, as Graham recalls in a Carnegie Hall video, they sang together professionally for the first time in Dvorak's Rusalka at Seattle Opera. As their careers blossomed, they became fast friends onstage and off.
"That Rusalka was the beginning of a long line of operatic events where I'm kneeling at your skirts as a boy, over and over and over again," Graham says, with a wry smile. As a mezzo-soprano, she often sings "trouser roles," in which she portrays a young man infatuated with the character sung by the lead soprano.
Because Fleming and Graham have shared the operatic stage so often, people have a tendency to confuse the two. Both are "sort of blond," they say, and are each "cheerful Americans."
"I've been chased down the street numerous times in France with crazed fans screaming, 'Madame Fleming, Madam Fleming!'" Graham says.
The artists love singing in French and that language, with its fluidity and potential for color in its vowels, falls beautifully on their voices. Graham and Fleming have both been awarded the Legion of Honor, France's highest honor, for their work in French music.
Graham is particularly revered for her many recordings of French song — especially those by Reynaldo Hahn, a few of which will make an appearance in the Carnegie concert. Her latest album features music by Poulenc, Duparc and a dramatic tour de force by Berlioz called La Mort d'Ophélie (The Death of Ophelia, based on a scene from Act lV of Hamlet) which is also on the program. Fleming's latest album is also French focused, with songs by Ravel, Dutilleux and Messiaen.
For Sunday's concert, the two opera stars are planning an informal evening — as informal as you can get in iconic Carnegie Hall, with each draped in stunning gowns. They'll tell a few stories along the way, replicating, they hope, the casual feel of the late 19th-century Parisian musical salon. These gatherings, usually in homes of the upper middle class, were important meeting places for musicians, artists and intellectuals to discuss and try out their latest work.
Perhaps the most formidable salon was hosted by Pauline Viardot, a famous mezzo-soprano, whose Rue de Douai residence became a hothouse of musical talent, with Saint-Saëns, Fauré, Massenet and Gounod in regular attendance.
Fleming and Graham will pair up for songs by Saint-Saëns and Fauré; they'll take solo sets of Debussy and Hahn and cap the evening with a few delicious operatic duets.
Whether you are at Carnegie Hall for this concert or listening online, you can always just close your eyes, pretend you're reclining on a velvet divan in a cushy salon and soak in some extraordinarily gorgeous music, sung by two of the finest singers working today.
Reneé Fleming, soprano
Susan Graham, mezzo-soprano
Bradley Moore, piano
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