Top of His Game – An Interview with David Daniels

The interview took place at the Santa Fe Opera Ranch prior to opening night of the 2011 Summer Festival. The facilitation of this interview by the Santa Fe Opera is gratefully acknowledged:


Wm: You are from South Carolina, and were raised in a musical family. When did you first become aware of opera, and how did you make the decision to pursue a musical career?

\DD: My parents were a baritone and soprano, who taught at Spartansburg’s Converse College. Each summer my father taught at the Brevard Music Center in Brevard, North Carolina. Thus, I grew up with opera from the beginning of my life.  As long as I can remember, it was always my desire, my vision, to be a professional singer. I envisioned myself as being a great Italian tenor from South Carolina.

[Below: Countertenor David Daniels; resized image of a promotional photograph.]


Wm: Although you had trained as a tenor at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, at the University of Michigan graduate school you made the decision to pursue the countertenor voice. By 1997 your accomplishments led to your receiving the Richard Tucker Award. I have interviewed several of the Tucker Awardees and have asked how that particular recognition advanced their career? In what ways did it prove helpful to yours?

DD: Well, I am the first and only countertenor to receive that award. Growing up as a huge Italian opera and Richard Tucker fan, it was a thrill for me and a great compliment.

How did it change my career? That award promotes you in the opera business. It has a televised gala. It put me out there in the  public eye.

Beyond that, I don’t know how to explain how it helped my career, being that my repertory isn’t in the world  that Richard Tucker exemplified.  It was so strange that a countertenor would win the award.

Wm: No Handel opera had ever been performed by the San Francisco Opera until 1978 when bass-baritone John Ostendorf sang the title role in “Giulio Cesare” for its Spring Opera Theater, using the edition that basso Norman Treigle used for his recording of that role. Four years later the opera was introduced to the San Francisco Opera mainstage with Tatiana Troyanos as Cesare. The opera did not return until 2002, with you in the title role. Thus, in a period of 24 years, the entire approach to performing Handel was transformed.

In an interview several years ago with James Jorden, you used the term “Troyanesque” to describe the singing of baroque opera as if one were singing Azucena in Verdi’s “Il Trovatore”. Is it your belief now that reasonably authentic approaches to baroque music are the norm on the stages of major opera companies?

DD: The interview with Jorden was at the beginning of my career. I look back at that interview, and am horrified at how my expressions of self-confidence and my strong belief in myself comes across the way it does.

But some of the things I said (or that Jorden said I said) I would never say again. Then I was young and not giving enough thought to the questions that were being thrown at me. I’m still embarrassed that it stays on the Internet for all to read.

To answer your question, I think the present performance norm is to be stylish in an 18h century way, rather than striving for “authenticity”. I think these days that the voices that sopranos, tenors, baritones bring to the music incorporates a love and admiration for it. “Authentic” can  mean so many different ways of performing this music.  What I think is now abundant is a true and honest way of thinking about how to perform this music.

Wm: “Countertenor” is now the prevalent term for your type of voice, but not everyone agreed at first that this was the proper name for the vocal type. Are you satisfied with the term, or do you prefer something else?

DD: Yes, that’s the term I use.

[Below: Roberto (David Daniels, right) is hugged by Costanza (Isabel Leonard) in Peter Sellars’ 2011 Santa Fe Opera Summer Festival production of Vivaldi’s “Griselda”; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

 Wm: Not only do you sing Handel, but you sing Oberon in Britten’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”? Was Britten’s decision to write for the high voice of Alfred Deller an impetus for younger artists – such as James Bowman and Jeffrey Gall – to prepare for that role, and to look for others that might fit their voice?

DD: Since Britten composed both of his parts for countertenors – Oberon and The Voice of Apollo in “Death in Venice” – well before the revolution in performance styles of the baroque operas – I don’t think I know the answer to the question of whether Britten’s operas led to the rebirth of baroque opera or whether each developed on their own path.

However, my first engagement was covering Jeffrey Gall in 1991.  So, you could say that was a catalyst for my career. But the baroque resurgence itself proved to be a catalyst for much bigger things.

[Below: Lychas (David Daniels) counsels Dejanira (Alice Coote) in Peter Sellars’ production of Handel’s Hercules; edited image, based on a Dan Rest photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]

Wm: Not only were performance standards for Handel operas evolving, but similar changes were taking place in the performances of the earlier operas of Monteverdi and the later operas of Gluck. What do you regard as the key element of the change? Supply issues: the appearance of some male singers able to sing these roles in the original keys? Demand issues: the receptivity of audiences to the beauty of the music with the correct mix of high voices? The willingness of managements to take a chance on something they had not done before?

DD: All of the above. Everything you just said plays a part of the interweaving of the baroque “support structure” – singers who are passionate about the music, directors who are attracted to the subject, and managements willing to take a risk – that has led to the explosion of interest in baroque opera performance.

I would say the imagined “baroque risk” still scares most managements, so that they schedule fewer performances than audience interest would sustain. It’s my experience that the baroque operas scheduled then become huge hits, and the managements admit they could have scheduled more performances. I’ve found that to be the case 95 percent of the time.

Now with the downturn is the economy, I suppose the reluctance to schedule “too many” performances will continue. But I do think that managements have caught on that, with the proper conductor, cast and director, they can sell the baroque operas as well as those of the standard repertory.

Wm: There is a temptation of some to think of all pre-Mozartean opera – be it Monterverdi, Handel, Vivaldi or Gluck – as of a similar style. Yet you have noted how different a role such as Nerone in Monteverdi’s “L’Incoronazione de Poppera” might be from, say, Gluck’s “Orfeo”.  Are there styles of vocal composition that you find particularly difficult, or that you find suits your voice well?

DD: There are two roles that did not fit my voice well, and I think proved to be a mistake for me. These were the title roles of Handel’s “Orlando” and “Tamerlano”. They have a more dramatic lower tessitura that better fits a voice like mezzo-soprano Sonia Prina or a countertenor whose voice is more like Bejun Mehta’s. Neither role will I do again.

[Below: David Daniels in the title role as Handel’s “Tamerlano”; edited image, based on a photograph for Washington National Opera.]

I do well with the more lyrical type of music one finds in the role of Orfeo in Gluck’s “Orfeo ed Euridice”, Arsace in Handel’s “Partenope”, Arsamenes in Handel’s “Xerxes” and the title role of Handel’s “Radamisto”.

Wm: At Houston Grand Opera last year, you were the Arsamenes in an uncut performance of Handel’s “Xerxes”, with Susan Graham, Sonia Prina and Laura Claycomb in Sir Nicholas Hytner’s famous production spoofing 18th century London society. That production with most of same principals will be seen in San Francisco this fall. Would you agree with me that this production is a “world treasure” [For my review, see: “Xerxes” Unexcelled – Houston Grand Opera, May, 2, 2010.] and that the Houston performances were among the most successful Handel performances of the 21st century?

DD: The “Xerxes” had a wonderful group of singers in a wonderful production that has been around for decades. We all loved it and we loved each other. Really successful opera performances are similar to sports. Successful sports teams are successful, not only because they are talented, but that they genuinely like each other. When there are singers with talent that really enjoy being with each other, such as in this “Xerxes”, it  results in one of the best performances that could be.

Wm: You will be a star of the Metropolitan Opera’s pastiche opera, “The Enchanted Island” later this year. How is that project going? Is this a concept that you think might catch on with the world’s opera audiences?

DD That’s to be seen. I really don’t know. I think this has potential to be a successful project, if audiences come to it with an open mind. It has a story that has been newly created for the pastiche, with a wonderful cast.

However, I would also would like to see new ways of working with the operas themselves in the forms that have come down to us. Doing an 18th century opera – such as one by Handel – uncut can be as exciting as this project.

Wm: Your colleague Laura Claycomb has suggested that everyone who makes it on the operatic stage is an “overachiever”, but you seem to have taken “overachievement” in opera to new heights – you taking the lead in creating what really may be a wholly new genre or at least a dramatically different approach to baroque opera in the 21st century. We don’t have 18th century castrati trained in their vocal techniques and we usually don’t have performances in the major opera houses with period instruments, so the sound that has been created and continues to evolve is something that is perhaps unique to the present day. Do you agree with this assessment, that in attempting to develop an “authentic” 17th and 18th century sound, we have created a 21st century “baroque” sound of which you are the greatest exemplar?

DD: If I were sitting with James Jorden 20 yrs ago I would probably say yes! I won’t say that this time.

However, the modern orchestras adore this repertory. Here at the Santa Fe Opera Festival, we are preparing Vivaldi’s “Griselda”. I don’t think Vivaldi’s orchestration is as good as Handel’s, but it’s something new to them. But they don’t fight the conductor when they are asked for a quick bow and vibrato – they mostly embrace it.

[Below: Griselda (Meredith Arwady, left) greets Costanza (Isabel Leonard, second from left) as Gualtiero (Paul Groves) and Roberto (David Daniels, right) look on; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

Wm: You are a sports enthusiast, and a Southerner and can imagine you and a group of Carolinian men shooting hoops and spending time watching ESPN together. You exude the confidence that you are comfortable in different environments, be it discussing “March Madness” basketball brackets with other dudes, or an 18th century castrati’s embellishments for the second verse of a particular aria. Where do you call home, and how often do you get to be there?

DD: My real home is Atlanta. I’m comfortable in both of those worlds, although I’d much prefer talking about NCAA brackets than baroque ornamentation. The ornamentation should come from one’s soul and heart and emotion, not from musical history or theory. Composing ornamentation bores me to death.

Wm: What are thoughts about the your two summers in the Santa Fe Festival?

DD: I had such a great time in Handel’s “Radamisto” in 2008 with Laura Claycomb. I had use of a wonderful house in town that year and was so comfortable. I asked if I could get the same house again this year, and I got it!

I grew up in the summer festivals of the Brevard Music Center and so am familiar with the typical music festival, but this is different. Here you hear music and instruments with three operas being staged at the same time. It’s a great experience.

I don’t know whether turning 40 has improved my life, but it seems good. Maybe my early career came at me too fast. It took me a while to get my feet under me. Now I feel in control of my voice and my life. I haven’t missed a performance from illness in four or five years. I’m feeling confident and feel that I’m singing better than I ever have.

For my reviews of other David Daniels productions, see: Strong Cast for Peter Sellars’ Reconceptualization of Handel’s “Hercules” – Lyric Opera of Chicago, March 16, 2011, and also,

Britten’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” in Chicago: Enchanting, Luminous, Hilarious – Lyric Opera, November 17, 2010.