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DENYCE GRAVES, mezzo-soprano: in conversation





DENYCE GRAVES
in FanFaire:



Carmen at THE ELLIE

Samson et Dalila

at LA Opera



Interview:

On CARMEN


On DALILA & other roles


DISCOGRAPHY



***

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In November 2005 when Denyce Graves opened Opera Colorado's 2005-2006 Season in Bizet's Carmen, she very graciously consented to a phone interview with FanFaire. As she gave an insightful interpretation of the role she literally has made her own, the supremely gifted mezzo-soprano revealed herself to be an artist of rare perception. To inquire even only superficially about her other roles thus became an irresistible temptation. Happily for us, Denyce was most obliging.

DALILA!

We inquired first about her other femme fatale signature role, Dalila - seductive and crafty like Carmen, perhaps a bit more wily. Having learned to our surprise of her frustration  with Carmen, we wondered if Dalila was musically a role more to her liking.

There was no mistaking her preference. "Dalila! Oh, yes. ABSOLUTELY! There's no comparison or contest as far as I'm concerned. From a musical standpoint, the music of Dalila is much more demanding, no question." Unlike Carmen, and herein lies the source of her frustration with Bizet's heroine, Dalila has some moments alone and gets to sing beautiful arias. "My God, all of them are gorgeous!" she enthused effusively, extolling the virtues of Camille Saint-Saens' opera Samson et Dalila, which is based on the well-known biblical story. More spectacular but less popular than Carmen, it is the only successful and often produced of Saint-Saëns' thirteen operas, containing some of the most beautiful vocal music in all of French opera. It becomes more so when Dalila is sung by great mezzo-sopranos like Denyce Graves. [But listening is believing. Click below to hear music clips.] Ironically it was attacked by critics in Saint-Saëns' time for its complete absence of melody. How aesthetics change!

Photo shows Denyce Graves as Dalila in the LA Opera production of Samson et Dalila Photo © Ken Howard, courtesy LA Opera

Listen to music clips from Dalila's beautiful arias:
from Mon coeur s'ouvre à ta voix* from Printemps qui commence** from Amour! Viens aider ma faiblesse!**
from the album "Denyce Graves: French Opera Arias" (Virgin Classics)                          BUY THE CD  
from the album "Denyce Graves: Voce di Donna" (RCA Victor 09026-63509-2)         BUY THE CD

Again, curious about how she prepared for the role, we asked if, as in Carmen, she went back to the source of the story. "You know, the Bible - specifically the Book of Judges - doesn't really go into the relationship of Samson and Dalila. It speaks more of Samson, actually. So, I think a lot of the information about this particular character, Dalila, is right there in the score itself.

"I know a lot of things are unexplained. In her very first entrance, for example, she says 'Je viens celebre la victoire de lui qui a régné dans mon coeur.' (I have come here to celebrate the victory of him who reigned in my heart.) She's coming to celebrate the victory of him AGAINST her people! You know, I have a very difficult time justifying that; but I think at the same time, it's part of her great plan for how she's going to get his trust."

Denyce sang the role for the first time "in 1991 in Ravinia with James Levine, Placido Domingo and Sherrill Milnes. It was the concert version. I first sang it in a staged production in 1993." [Photo at left shows her with Placido Domingo as Samson in the 1999 Los Angeles Opera production. Photo © Ken Howard, courtesy LA Opera]

Is that how you also usually prepare for a role - sing it first in concert?" we asked. "I was fortunate to be able to do that; but no, it doesn't always happen that way. You certainly work it all out in the studio, with your voice teacher, and you sing it many, many times. But there's nothing like actually doing it.  You know, it's a very different ballgame, a very different ball of wax, when you actually have the great pressure of doing it onstage in front of everybody - the character and everything else are pushed into a whole different league."


LOVING JUDITH IN BLUEBEARD'S CASTLE

"The role of Judith is just sooo beautiful! I was very much attracted to the character and to the music." Not an iota of frustration could be heard as Denyce waxed exuberantly over a role she has performed only twice to date, in two different productions of Bela Bartók's Bluebeard's Castle, his suspenseful, richly-orchestrated, one-act opera macabre. She was a magnificently riveting Judith to bass Samuel Ramey's starkly chilling Bluebeard in the 2002 Los Angeles Opera production staged by film director William Friedkin (of The Exorcist fame).

"We're reprising that in August 2006 with Washington National Opera in Washington DC. It's going to be the same William Friedkin production, and with Sam Ramey as well," she announced, obviously thrilled that she's doing it again. "I'm looking forward to that. It should be great. I certainly hope to do more of it."

Denyce Graves and Samuel Ramey in Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle. Photo© Robert Millard, courtesy LA Opera

Another calling card in the making? Possibly. And if Denyce Graves did it often enough, the opera could join the ranks of the one-act warhorses in the modern repertoire.

"How did you like working with a Hollywood movie director?" we asked. "It was great! Because he really gave us a lot of freedom. He really did. He allowed us to explore ourselves. And he did not tell us every move to take and that sort of thing. He let us find it ourselves." It helped of course that Friedkin loves opera. "Yes, he's a huge opera lover. Oh, we had a great time with that piece!"

"Then would you be attracted to something like Schönberg's Erwartung as well? "I know that sometimes they do that in a double bill, but I think that it is a bit too high for me."


CHARLOTTE IN WERTHER:
"Ahhh! This must be what it feels like to be a soprano!"
Making music with ANDREA BOCELLI

We then thought of Charlotte in Jules Massenet's Werther, a role not performed often enough, but one that appears to be universally loved by mezzo-sopranos. Denyce is no exception. "Oh, I've done that quite a few times. I loooove this role! It is so refreshing - you know, the great music.... I tell myself 'Ahhh! this must be what it feels like to be a soprano!" I've done it in Genoa. I've done it with Andrea Bocelli at Michigan Opera Theater which was his first performance in a fully staged opera production." [Photo at left, source www.denycegraves.com.]

Andrea Bocelli! Mention of the name invites discussion, or argument. The charismatic pop idol has his detractors - those purists among opera lovers, who dismiss him as a popular singer, denying him legitimacy. Obviously, Denyce is not one of them. "Yes, they do. You know, when we did Werther, I think that people came to the opera with their swords already drawn. I think a lot of purists came and said, 'OK, it's one thing to do the popular stuff, but now you're in another arena.' I know that opera has been his passion. He has wanted desperately to be accepted in the operatic world, that's for sure.  But there are people who will always resist that for him."

"The type of people one will never be able to convince anyway." "Yes, I think so. Which is just crazy.  You know, so many opera singers would die to have the recognition that he has, and he just wants the respect within the business.  I think that people should just come with an open mind.

"What's the point of music anyway?  It's to make us feel something, to bring more beauty into our lives, to allow people to express that which is inexpressible, to transport us to another place that lets us forget about the terrible world that we live in...  to just feed our souls and hearts.  And if he does that with some people, then I think that's great.  His talent is being well served.  

"I know he brings a lot of joy and happiness to people. He's a loving human being. I know that certain personalities are suited for certain things, but I think it's a free world and art is free. If he wants to sing opera, then why not? People can decide whether to go or not. By the way, I'm getting ready to do a US tour with him, "A Royal Christmas" it's called, and it starts next week." The tour, with accompaniment provided by the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra, played through the first half of December to an adoring audience from coast to coast.

Wouldn't the world be a better place if we all took our cue from Denyce Graves' big-heartedness and refreshing point of view?

Listen to music clips from Werther:
from Werther! Werther! (Air de lettres) from Va! Laisse couler mes larmes
from the album "Denyce Graves: Voce di Donna" (RCA Victor 09026-63509-2)         BUY THE CD


CONTEMPORARY SINGING

Recently, Denyce created, to great acclaim, the title role of the new opera Margaret Garner, which is based on a poignant, true story about a runaway slave in pre-Civil war America. "That was written by Richard Danielpour, and Toni Morrison was the librettist. It's a piece that I'm extremely proud of, and we will revive that in February at Opera Company of Philadelphia." When asked if the work might receive a West Coast premiere in the future, she replied, as if with fingers crossed, "From your mouth to God's ear, I certainly hope so!."

Denyce has performed many of the operatic roles written for her voice range, and there are still quite a few that she would love to do - Gluck's Orfeo and Thomas' Mignon, for example. Most, if not all of them, are classic works in the standard repertoire. Thus we thought that Margaret Garner was her first foray into contemporary opera. Wrong. "No, it wasn't. When I did my apprenticeship with Houston Grand Opera, Carlisle Floyd was composer-in-residence and so we workshopped many of his pieces." Susannah was the first of Floyd's works that came to mind. "No, not Susannah. There's nothing for me in there. But we did Bilby's Doll, and The Passion of Jonathan Wade. And my very first opera was a commission for the sesquicentennial of Oberlin College, a piece by Conrad Cummings called Suite from Eros and Psyche and I played the role of the Queen. So, the very first opera role that I did was the world premiere of a contemporary opera." An early foretelling of the world premieres that are now becoming a hallmark of her phenomenal career.

"And then we have Grendel coming in Los Angeles." It will again be the first performance of a first opera by an American composer, Elliot Goldenthal. The Los Angeles Opera production, to be directed by Julie Taymor with libretto by Taymor herself and poet J.D.McClatchy, will world-premiere in May 2006. The opera, which is based on novelist John Gardner's Grendel - a retelling of the classic Anglo-Saxon epic "Beowolf" from the point of view of the monster - promises to be a visually spectacular production. Denyce Graves will sing the role of the cynical but wise Dragon. A Julie Taymor production with dragons and monsters ought to be fun. So, we asked her what it would be like, she laughed as she said, "I have no idea. At the moment it's a great mystery. We're still waiting on the music for that. I've not even seen the score yet. The composer is still working on it. But it should be fun and I'm really looking forward to it." Thus we learned that it is not unusual that a singer does not get to see the score until a few months (or less) before the premiere of a new work.  "Oh, sometimes really even less!" But for Denyce, who by her own account is a quick study - it took her only two weeks to learn Carmen! - that would not be a problem at all.


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