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Danielle de Niese and Mozart (September 23, 2009)

The Mozart Album: DeNiese sings Mozart
Danielle DeNiese

CDs: 1
Tracks: 12

Decca
Rel. 18 Aug 2009

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On Wednesday, September 23, 2009, Artistic Director Dr. Nolan Gasser caught up with rising-star lyric soprano Danielle de Niese, one day after her Metropolitan Opera premiere as Susanna in Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro. In a fascinating and insightful interview, Ms. de Niese discusses her approach to this colorful operatic role and her fairytale road to the Met's current run – 11 years after singing the smaller role of Barbarina in the same production. Ms. de Niese traces the highlights of her meteoric career, from her breakout role as Cleopatra in Handel's Giulio Cesare to forthcoming operatic roles at Glyndebourne and beyond. She also shares her inspiring views on the future of opera, and a refreshingly honest love for the music she sings.

“Over the past 20 years I haven't lost any of the splendor of what it means – the privilege that it means – to be able to go out there and connect with people.”

  • Nolan Gasser: So, I have to ask about the premiere performance of [Mozart's] Marriage of Figaro last night: Was it all you hoped it would be, or perhaps all you imagined it might be when you sang the role of Barbarina in the Metropolitan Opera production some 11 years ago?

  • Danielle de Niese Danielle De Niese: Yes, it was incredible. It was something that I thought about for such a long time. So, it was a bit of a dream come true, I would say. I used to go during the Overture to watch Cecilia [Bartoli] and Bryn [Terfel] preparing for Le nozze [di Figaro], and I would think about what it would be like to sing Susanna in the same production [originally staged in 1998 by director Jonathan Miller], and now that's actually happened. So it's pretty amazing, actually.

  • NG: Well, I can imagine it would be. The part of Susanna is one that by now you've had a fair bit of experience with, going back to your student days at the Mannes School of Music, and then later with the Netherlands Opera in 2006 – how has your approach to this great, colorful character evolved over time? And what has been your approach to make the role your own?

  • Danielle de Niese DdN: I devoured everything very early on. I read the Beaumarchais play, I spent a lot of time researching and reading. I then absorbed all of this information and translated the opera - I didn't speak Italian when I did Susanna at Mannes. So, I had to translate the opera word for word with a dictionary, which was... a labor! But it was worth it, because now I feel like I know the piece, inside and out.

    When I did that first Susanna, I already felt then that this was a role for me. Sometimes you do these roles where you feel like it's a perfect fit – and I felt Susanna was definitely one of those roles. So, ever since then, I knew that I would do Susanna at some point. But I was doing a lot of Baroque opera at the time, so I let it sit a bit. Then in 2006 I had the chance to sing Susanna at the Netherlands Opera, and it was a good time – it was a good place to do it. And fondly enough, pulling out the score again, it was like I never left it. It was as if I'd sung the role yesterday.

  • NG: Right, she was like an old friend.

  • DdN: Yes, I just remembered everything. I barely had to review at all. It's one of those pieces that I know so well, I'll never have to review it. I'll always study it. I'll always grow with it and I'll always make it different and become involved with it, but I'll never forget it.

  • NG: I can understand that kind of connection, and in reading other things you've said about your role preparation, I'm not surprised to hear that you read the original Beaumarchais play [Le mariage de Figaro], and translated it word-for-word. You certainly seem to take very seriously your preparation – to inhabit the roles you sing. I was impressed, for example, to read how much care you took in preparing for the role of Cleopatra [in Handel's Giulio Cesare in Egitto] – reading histories and various accounts, reviewing artwork, etc., in order to "become Cleopatra". Now, when it comes to your musical preparation, do you adopt the same intensive and comprehensive approach? What are your techniques in preparing yourself to sing Susanna, or Euridice [in Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice, or Poppea [in Monterverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea]?

  • Danielle de Niese DdN: I find often that in the rehearsal phase I don't sing out at the beginning. And somebody asked the other day why I do that. I think part of the reason is that I like to find my footing in the character first, without thinking about how I sound. So, that's one part of preparation that's very interesting for me. I don't have the perfect answer as to why that is, but I've always done that. I've never gone and sung straight away in the rehearsals because I want to remove the aspect of "singing for people" – which can become an experience that's too detached from what you're actually doing in rehearsals – which is exploring the character. Once I find how the pacing of a particular recitative works, then I start to put in the voice.

    Oddly enough, with this Susanna, because I know it so well, and because we only had three weeks of rehearsal, I sang from the first day, even though I just got off the plane! And that worked really well for me, but again I know the part really well. But when there are roles that I don't know as well, like Euridice – it was the very first time I was ever singing [the role of] Euridice – I spent the first couple of days just marking, so that I could find a sense of pacing, without actually thinking, "I have to place the sound in this perfect way because this is what I want to do with this particular tone," etc.

    But that is a different discussion. There are different aspects to singing and to interpreting. There's what you do with your body, there's what you do with the text, and there's what you do with the sound. A lot of different ways to create color, and I don't always like to think of just one thing first. So, I try to take a few of the ingredients out so that I can focus on the telling of the story. Once I have that, I can build on the skeleton.

  • NG: Well, that's certainly very interesting. It almost makes me think that there's a level of improvisation that goes on. That you can't really know exactly how to approach your part until you're in that context...

  • DdN: Absolutely, it shouldn't ever be auto-pilot.

  • NG: So, do you find yourself almost as if you're an actor in a play – memorizing every other part? In other words, do you devour the musical score?

  • Danielle de Niese DdN: Yeah, I'm one of those junkies like that. I definitely love absorbing as much information as I can. I know Figaro back to front. And I love really working through my scores. People were sort of making fun of me because my score is so tattered. And I've had to tape it back together, and tape the covers back on; and then the covers came off again, so then I used duct tape the next time. It's really funny, but actually I love looking at my score and seeing that, because it's a sign of the wear, and the work. I love that. I also put all of my cards that my colleagues send me on opening night. I keep them in the score, so it's a good energy.

  • NG: It becomes a good keepsake following a production.

  • DdN: Yes.

  • NG: Let's talk a little more about repertoire. Your career was launched largely as being a gifted interpreter of Handel – both on stage and with your first CD [Händel Arias]. In addition you've worked with Bill Christie and Les arts florissants, on productions of Rameau's Les Indes galantes; as well as having sung Monteverdi's Poppea. Now, I'm an Early Music guy, and I find that this music is often a kind of "calling". So, what was the impetus for your dedication to Baroque music, and even the early Baroque? Was it by virtue of personal taste, or that of your teachers (for example, Ruth Falcon), or the natural inclination of your voice, or parts that landed on your lap?

  • Danielle de Niese DdN: The very first experience that I had with Baroque music was as a teenager. I sang things like "V'adoro, pupille" and "Piangerò" [both from Giulio Cesare]. Even as a teenager I used them as study pieces, and sometimes performed them in recitals when I was younger. I then went to Mannes College of Music, which had a very good Early Music program at the time, and I was asked to sing a few roles in the Mannes Camarata – called Il café d'Amore. And there we're doing [Luigi] Rossi, [Jean-Baptiste] Lully, and Monteverdi; it was a fantastic thing. I took to the style like a duck to water; I just got it! So, that was my first sort of big experience with Baroque music.

    And then in that same year I did an audition for Peter de Caluwe who is now the Intendant [General Manager] of the De Munt / La Monnaie [Belgium's leading opera house] in Brussels, but at the time he was the Intendant of the Netherlands Opera. So I did an audition for him and I sang the [Handel] Cleopatra arias and Mozart arias. And he asked me to come and sing Cleopatra in three years time, when I would be 21, at the Netherlands Opera. And it was really that debut in Europe that started the whole Baroque snowball. I mean, it was a wonderful thing, because I have grown so much in Baroque music. In terms of Monteverdi, again in school I had sung the duet "Pur ti miro" [from Poppea] and I loved it. And then Brian Dickie [General Director, Chicago Opera Theater] asked me to come to Chicago in 2004 to sing Poppea. And that was my first Poppea; it was incredible! It was with [conductor] Jane Glover. The experience was phenomenal. It was the inauguration also, of the new theatre, so we were really excited. That was my first professional Monteverdi experience.

  • NG: That's a great story. So you were standing before the Intendant of the Netherlands Opera, and you sang both Handel and Mozart; he then said, "Come back in three years, and I want you to sing Cleopatra." Had he said he wanted you to return to sing the role of Barbarina or Despina [from Così fan tutte], or some other Mozart role, it could have been quite different...

  • Danielle de Niese DdN: Yes, it could have been, actually... I had Cleopatra on my role studies and I knew it, and I was learning it because I wanted to sing it. But to have the opportunity to start a career as Cleopatra... It was quite interesting because I was singing Barbarina and Peter knew that, many years earlier at the Met, and I had other operas from Mozart as well. But to have gone as Cleopatra was definitely a showcase for me, because of the role... because of the way in which the role is... "exhibitioned", in a sense. So, it was a perfect match.

  • NG: It seems that it couldn't have been better for you, as it's a role that you have embodied so well. And clearly, it has been a great launching pad for your career – Peter de Caluwe had good instincts.

    I'm wondering if you've considered singing even earlier repertory – back to the Renaissance? Hearing you sing arias from [Handel's] Rinaldo and Alcina makes me think you'd be ideal for singing the [early 16th c.] frottola repertory of [Marchetto] Cara and [Bartolomeo] Tromboncino? Are you familiar with this music?

  • DdN: I'm not. I'd be very curious. If you ever had a moment to send me some music or information, I would love to look at it. If you thought it was good for the voice.

  • NG: I think that you would love it; it's of the age just prior to the madrigal – but the frottole are often sung as solo voice with light accompaniment. And they are extremely rich – so lyrical. I'll be happy to send you some things.

  • DdN: Great.

  • NG: So, of course you "launched" with Handel. And now, you've moved forward historically, as a natural progression, to sing Mozart. What later repertory are you setting your sites on – Mimi (from Puccini's La Bohème), Juliette (from Gounod's Roméo et Juliette), Violetta (from Verdi's La Traviata), or perhaps song material from Schubert or Fauré?

  • Danielle de Niese DdN: I've done a lot of recitals. I went to the Marlboro Festival two years in a row and I've also had been to the Aspen Music Festival and Tanglewood before that, as a 13 and 15 year-old. I have a lot of recital rep, I mean my repertoire in terms of recital leader and chanson is pretty extensive, which I'm very proud of. And chamber music as well. I just finished a recital tour in February, which was so great. I really realized in doing this tour that continuing to fulfill that aspect of my career is very important to me, because I couldn't just survive on opera alone. I need also recitals and chamber music. The tour was fantastic. It was a US tour that finished up at Carnegie Hall. It was really so wonderful. Recitals give you a chance to really tell many different stories on a very intimate level. So, I had a fantastic time with that. In terms of where I'm heading composer-wise, the next composer that I am working on is Donizetti. And the roles that I feel are really good for me right now are Adina in L'elisir d'Amore and Norina in Don Pasquale. Those I think are really good roles; good for the voice. They still have a lot of agility and a lot of lyricism as well, but they're not sort of going [to heavier roles like the leads in] Anna Bolena or Lucia [di Lammermoor]. It's a good place to go to.

  • NG: Are there particular performances that are being scheduled?

  • DdN: Yes, I will do Adina at Glyndeborne in 2011 and in 2011/12 I will do Norina in San Diego.

  • NG: It definitely sounds like you are progressing nicely in your career, and historically. I think that's a nice way to go.

  • DdN: Thank you.

  • NG: I did read that you have an interest in contemporary opera. I don't know specifically yet what are your interests, or do you have particular interests in say, contemporary American opera?

  • DdN: I'd be very interested in contemporary American opera. I did a contemporary Dutch opera called RAAFF [by Robin de Raaff] in 2004, at the Netherlands Opera. That was a world premiere. It was a very striking score. I had a fantastic time. I love modern music. I used to sing atonal and 12-tone music in high school as well. So that is definitely something I'd be very interested in. It's very hard from the other side of the spectrum isn't it?

  • NG: Well certainly it is, and there's plenty of interesting corollaries that can be discussed between the pre- and post- side of tonality. But, we'll save for a different discussion...

  • DdN: [laughter]. Yes. One role I'd love to do is Anne Truelove in [Stravinksy's] The Rake's Progress.

  • NG: Or, perhaps the lead in Barber's Vanessa?

  • DdN: Maybe at some point, definitely.

  • NG: Finally, I understand you've had some experience in the non-classical realm (I guess going back to your childhood); you've sung in Les Misérables [the role of Eponine], and even having some interest from the group Snow Patrol [of "Chasing Cars" fame]? Any plans for some future cross-over projects?

  • DdN: Funny thing, you know I've done a lot of other things in my life, but always felt that my identity is so closely wrapped up in being a classical singer. So, the crossover's not really on my radar. I think that the most interesting crossover project would be, sort of people "crossing over" to classical music, if you know what I mean?

  • NG: Sure.

  • DdN: So, I'm not really focused on anything crossover because I'm very happily ensconced in all of my classical activities. And my schedule is so full. With the Snow Patrol, I was asked to go to Madison Square Garden and sing a duet with them, because we'd all met and they'd seen my work and I'd seen their work. Those are just fun collaborations, but they're just collaborations. It's not actually sort of venturing out into the pop world or the crossover world. For me anyway [laughter].

  • NG: Got it, and that makes a lot of sense. You are indeed ensconced quite nicely in the opera and the classical world. So let's come back to opera just a bit. It's obvious that opera broadcasts are "growing up", taking cues from Hollywood, and high-end documentaries, especially with the Met, but also with SF Opera. This is clearly putting even more focus on acting, not to mention a Hollywood eye toward good looks. What are your thoughts on this trend? Does it have an impact on how you perform, knowing the camera is on – and is that a good thing?

  • DdN: I think the only difference between performing on stage for a theatre audience versus performing for a movie broadcast, is that on the stage you have a big audience and with the camera you have an audience of one. So, the way in which you can scale down your performance for the lens is definitely a very interesting journey. In terms of the trend, I think that acting has always been a part of singing, but I don't really differentiate between the two. And I don't know that anyone else ever has either. I think that it's just normal that the various traditions evolved over time. It's much the same as set design from 50 years ago. It's very, very different than set design that we have now. But that doesn't mean that it wasn't fantastic before. It just means that things evolve. There are definitely different requirements for us, nowadays, in terms of preparing for each new broadcast and having the lens very close. But I think the acting is the same as it always was. It's something that... when you're singing and you're really telling the story, and faithful to the text, then you are acting. And there are different degrees to which people act. That's the same in any business. And in the film business as well, people employ different methods of acting. So, I think it's an individual process. It's a journey for everybody.

  • NG: Obviously, it's all about communication. The better the character is integrated by the singing and acting, the fuller the role is embodied, and then the more it communicates to the audience.

  • DdN: Exactly.

  • NG: You've discussed your optimistic view on the future of opera and classical music in general, and of course given your own personal success – on stage as well as in the marketplace – I can see why. But beyond that, what is it specifically that gives you optimism that classical music has a viable future, that it will continue to attract a younger generation?

  • DdN: The most obvious answer is that it's already survived so many generations and there's got to be a good reason for that. We all know about classical music and the value of the compositions. So that is why it has withstood the test of time. But the simplest answer that I can give you as to why I'm so optimistic is just out of sheer love. Honestly, I am so in love with what I do because it's an opportunity to share this amazing music with people. And I feel so privileged to have that opportunity – to be able to come out and sing Mozart like I did last night on the stage. At one point I was singing yesterday and I just thought of Mozart having written this music... did he know when he was writing it what a genius he was? I mean, it's such a privilege to be able to do that. And that's the thing that makes me positive, because it's only a matter of getting the music out to a wider audience. I have no doubt that once people hear Mozart, they will love it. It's just a matter of spreading love.

  • NG: Well, that was wonderfully put. And indeed it is hard to imagine anybody not falling in love with Mozart the first time that they hear his music.

    Now, you are in a privileged position with your growing celebrity status. So, as a rising celebrity and spokesperson within classical music (comes with the territory), do you have any thoughts on what the "industry" is not doing that it should – or perhaps what it is doing that it shouldn't – to keep classical music relevant in today's society?

  • DdN: I think that the most important thing is to get out there and reach out to people. I met a bunch of students after the dress rehearsal of Figaro and I got a box of my albums and handed them out to the kids for free. I spoke to them and we had a question and answer session. By the time we'd spent about 40 minutes together, they didn't want to leave the opera house. The experience of coming to the opera and then connecting with a performer is very important to them. And that's something that I initiated along with Peter Gelb [General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera], who is so supportive of educational efforts. And that's the most that you can do. If everybody were to do something, then we'd all be doing our part. It's a bit like recycling, isn't it? Everybody talks about recycling, but if you don't do it, then you're not helping. And there's no point sitting around complaining about the state of classical music today if you're not going to get up and do something about it. So, I just focus on the positive in that sense and set out with that in my heart. If you love music and you share that with people, then you can't really make a mistake, can you?

  • NG: It sounds like you're very fortunate to be in the classical music world, and that the classical music world is fortunate to have you, with that very positive message.

  • DdN: Thank you, you're very kind. I love to go out and talk to students, because I started so young as well, making my Met debut at 18 and my LA Opera debut at 15. There's a big history there and something to be said about not being limited by your age as well as not being limited by other people's impressions. So, I try to communicate that message out to kids. If they want to do something, if they want to perform classical music, if they want to have a passion for something, then the most important thing is to find it. And then if it happens to be classical music, to keep following that dream because it's a long and tough and difficult road. You have to be patient and you have to love it.

  • NG: Right, and you have to keep a certain childlike sense of wonder and excitement and curiosity even as you become a star.

  • DdN: Yeah, I mean, who knows? I feel like I fell in love with music all the way back when I took that first lesson at 8 or 9 years of age. The marriage that I feel to music has just gotten better and better. I love music and I love what I do, as much if not more than I did back then. So, over the past 20 years I haven't lost any of the splendor of what it means – the privilege that it means – to be able to go out there and connect with people.

  • NG: Well, you provided me with a great segue to my final question: speaking of marriage, I wanted to congratulate you on your upcoming nuptials with Mr. [Guy] Christie [Executive Chairman of the Glyndebourne Music Festival]; is there a date set yet?

  • DdN: Thank you! We have set a date. We're sending out the invitations. It's going to be in late December just before Christmas.

  • NG: That's terrific. I wonder if there might be some kind of artistic directorship at Glyndebourne in your future?

  • DdN: Right now my career is so busy, I barely get to see my fiancé [laughter]. But, we're very excited and you know, wedding planning is difficult when you're singing at the Met, so...

  • NG: [laughter] Well, that's what you call a happy problem.

  • DdN: Right [laughter].

  • NG: Well, Danielle it's been delightful talking with you, and I hope that you will come back and talk with us again in the future about your upcoming projects.

  • DdN: Great. Thank you, it was lovely to talk to you.

 
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