Once in awhile I find myself in the strangest places. For example, early last Saturday evening I entered the Wattis Room- a gorgeous, capacious hideaway within Davies Symphony Hall. The deep red walls, upon which large mirrors and abstract art are hung strategically, were as inviting as the buffet laid out in the center of the room. The ceilings must be twenty feet high, allowing conversations to float upward, instead of across the room. Even with everyone chatting at once one can't really overhear any conversation other than the one with which one is engaged and that seems to be by design. The room feels clubby and exclusive. In the corner a sat a grand piano. I knew the chance of hearing it played this evening were slim, but I did hold out some hope. It wasn't that I wanted to hear the piano itself. What I wanted was for someone to sit at that piano and accompany the guest of honor.

Scanning the crowd she was easy to spot with her long blonde hair, looking dazzling in a long pink coat. We had never met before but I was determined to change that before I left. I made my way over to the two people in the room I knew and chatted them up a bit. A bit out of sorts, since I was unexpectedly stag for the evening, I meandered and struck up a conversation with a couple of warm, older gentlemen, who shared some inside information I found interesting but should keep to myself, because perhaps they'll invite me back again if I don't share all the dirt.

Suddenly a brunette struck some random keys on the piano, creating a discordant sound within the room bringing all conversation to a halt. The guest of honor was introduced (though it seemed many present already knew her) with a recitation of her accomplishments and biography. Twenty five years ago she was a young woman living in Midland, Texas with a dream and a unique talent. An audition resulted in a phone call and soon she was on her way to California for the first time, bags packed with summer clothes, completely unaware that a summer in San Francisco is not the same thing as a summer in California.

Unlike many of her peers, she spent most of that summer studying roles rather performing them in front of people, and it obviously paid off, because when she finally did perform for an audience that summer, she won the highest award given. Since then she's reached the highest levels of acclaim, Gramophone calls her "America's favorite mezzo" and really, when you think about it, who else could it be but her? On this night she was joining a short list of only six other people who have been similarly honored: Thomas Hampson, Patrick Summers, Ruth Ann Swenson, Carol Vaness, Deborah Voigt and Dolora Zajick.

When she spoke she was funny, warm, and sincere, naming many in the room and offering the highest praise for the program honoring her this evening, calling it the "best in the world" and telling Director Sheri Greenawald "I say that even when you're not in the room." She told us of her just-concluded travels around the world, and connected these experiences to the those she had with this group twenty-five years earler.

When she finished speaking a tall blonde clad in head-to-toe black armed with a big camera snapped away while well-wishers queued up to speak to her. Out of the corner of my eye I watched her admiringly from the buffet, sampling coconut-encrusted shrimp on skewers and soon found myself talking with a woman of a certain age, a charmer named N______, who also had some interesting stories and anecdotes. I could have chatted her up for awhile but I realized if I continued to do so I would miss the opportunity to introduce myself to the center of attention. I excused myself and found an opening.

I introduced myself and she was incredibly gracious yet open. She did let one small thing slip: the next time we would see her locally onstage would be in Berlioz's Les Troyens, in 2015. I didn't have the presence of mind to ask if she would be singing Dido or Cassandra (I presume it's the former), as I found myself too taken by her.

After that what was left to do but casually slip back into the cool crisp night, back to a far less well-appointed room just blocks away but in what might as well be a different universe, where Thaïs awaited, and upon my entrance performed a scorching "Ah! je suis fatiguee a mourir!"

Congratulations, Susan Graham, on being awarded the Distinguished Alumni Award from the Merola Opera Program.

Former Merola Opera Program President Patrick Wilken, Susan Graham, Donna Blacker. Photo by Drew Altizer.