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On song … Susan Graham will perform in Sydney for the first time.

KNOWN as America's favourite mezzo-soprano, Susan Graham is in constant demand in Europe and North America but has yet to perform in an opera production in Australia.

The singer appeared with the Sydney Symphony when her then husband, Edo de Waart, was chief conductor in the 1990s. She returns to Sydney next week for a performance with her regular accompanist, Malcolm Martineau.

Graham's credentials include being a UNESCO delegate and she won a Grammy award for her recording of songs by Charles Ives. ''Over the years, I have run the gamut from Monteverdi to [the contemporary opera] Dead Man Walking and everything in between,'' she says. ''I have not specialised because I wanted to concentrate on beautiful music. I am not interested in anything postmodern and atonal but love anything contemporary if it is lyrical and melodic with singability.''

There can be no doubt about her commitment to modern music after she premiered the role of Sister Helen Prejean in Dead Man Walking, by Jake Heggie and Terrence McNally, in San Francisco 12 years ago.

The work has been performed around the world since then, including Adelaide and Sydney, and Graham says its success is a positive sign for opera at a time when funding cuts in the northern hemisphere are having a big impact.

Even an artist of her standing has noticed the impact of the global financial crisis on the arts. ''Everyone is aware of the number of cancelled productions,'' she says. ''It happens all the time in the US.'' Producers have also reduced the number of recitals they offer, she says.

While she believes there are signs of the downturn ending in the US, the tough conditions are continuing in Europe, where payments to artists are sometimes delayed in Italy, and Barcelona's opera house was closed for two months. ''The arts are the first to feel the effect of an economic downturn,'' she says. ''While they are necessary to me and to a lot of other people, many others regard them as a luxury.''

Not that a singer of Graham's standing is short of bookings. She is performing a recital program she performed in New York and Washington in February in Melbourne and Sydney, following performances with the Hong Kong Philharmonic.

She says her recital program is about women's lives and loves, with the first half on ''good girls'' such as the Virgin Mary and Ophelia, and the second half on ''bad girls'' such as Lady Macbeth.

The concert also includes such Broadway composers as Cole Porter, Stephen Sondheim and Mary Rodgers, as well as Ben Moore's Sexy Lady written especially for her. It pokes fun at the fate of a mezzo-soprano forced to keep playing boys in the ''trouser roles'' of Mozart's Cherubino and Strauss's Octavian.

''I made my name doing those roles but it is getting to be a stretch for me to be jumping out of windows,'' she says, referring to Cherubino's flight in The Marriage of Figaro.

Graham now concentrates on ''more mature heroic ladies'' such as Gluck's Iphigenia and the ''Mount Everest'' in her repertoire, Berlioz's Dido from Les Troyens. ''It is a dramatic tour de force and a giant epic piece that should be done everywhere,'' she says.

Susan Graham performs with pianist Malcolm Martineau at the Opera House Studio on May 1.