Rising Stars: An Interview with Danielle De Niese, Part 1

The following interview was conducted in the administrative offices of the San Diego Opera, whose facilitation of this interview is greatly appreciated:


Wm: You were born and your early childhood was spent in Australia, the country that has evolved as the second homeland for the Sri Lankan Burgher Community, whose ancestral lines were Dutch, Portuguese and Sri Lankan. Your fame, and that of Canadian author Michael Ondaatje, have brought some focus to the heritage of this vibrant Eurasian cultural minority. Did your parents raise you to feel a connection with the Australian Burgher community?

 DdN: That’s an interesting question. I don’t think my parents raised me to feel a connection with other Burghers, as opposed to people from the wider group of backgrounds in communities in which we lived, because the Burgher community is so unbelievably small. In my whole life I’ve not met another person that has recognized me as a Sri Lankan Burgher.

[Below: Danielle De Niese; edited image of a copyrighted  Chris Dunlop photograph, courtesy of Decca Records.]

There are not many Burghers who are closely related to one other. If a person met another Sri Lankan from their days in Colombo, they would likely relate to that person as being from a similar geographical place or social circle, rather than as sharing the exact common ancestry with themselves.

I don’t mean to suggest that Burghers are insular, but that we are surrounded by people from other ancestral backgrounds. Sri Lanka was a British, Dutch and Portuguese colony over 400 years. Because there is such a mix in our ancestry, we feel that we belong everywhere. I have the Eastern family of my parents. Some of my ancestral cultural background is in Europe. I, myself, grew up in Australia and in America and I studied languages in Europe.

 Wm: Often, when I ask artists about their earliest associations with opera and vocal performance, they cite experiences in their college days, but it is reported that you, as a young schoolgirl, had announced your desire to be an opera singer. What were your childhood experiences that led to such a prophetic declaration of your life goals at such an early age?

DdN: Well, I started singing and dancing at age six. I had supportive parents that would take me to lessons in song and dance, and to karate lessons with my brother, who was also doing sports. But it was singing and dancing that I liked most. I was studying tap dance, jazz dance, ballet and drama. I was taking piano lessons at age six and music theory at seven.

The time came along when we became curious about my voice. I’m lucky that I had parents that saw that I had that special gift for music.

When I was eight, my mom, who, herself, had taken piano and singing lessons, wanted to find me a teacher who would teach an eight year old who had shown prodigious talent in singing as early as ages six and seven. I was fortunate that my parents could see to it that I had teachers who could deal with a child who was very advanced.

My teacher was associated with the Victoria State Opera. It was at those lessons that we established that I could produce an operatic sound naturally. I don’t think I understood what opera was, but I understood as a kid that although other people could dance, not all of them had the vocal power to sing with a classically trained voice.

[Below: Danielle De Niese as Galatea in the 2009 Royal Opera House Covent Garden production of Handel’s “Acis and Galatea”; edited image of a Tristram Kenton photograph for ROH Covent Garden.]

Wm: You are close to your brother. Does he sing as well?

DdN: My brother does not sing. He goes for sports. When I was taking voice lessons, he was taking tennis lessons from the Australian tennis star, Peter McNamara. We are extremely close still to this day.

Wm: As a young girl, you entered and were successful in a television talent show, among other things, singing a Whitney Houston song. 

DdN: When I was eight, I appeared on a nationally televised show, Young Talent Time.  Johnny Young is like the Simon Cowell of Australian television. He created this major television show Young Talent Time – the format is like “America’s Got Talent”, but also includes an element like the Mickey Mouse Club.

Each month there is a “talent discovery”, and then for the finals, the 12 talent discovery performers, with all different kinds of talent from any field of performance, compete against each other to become Australia’s Talent Discovery of the Year – the best talent in the whole nation. I auditioned for the show when I was eight, and was selected as one of the monthly talent discoveries.  It was great to do the competition. I went on to become the youngest winner in the history of the competition at age eight. That was cool. I won prize money and a grand piano, which I still have.

WM: Which of Houston’s songs did you sing? 

DdN: I sang a medley of I want to Dance with Somebody and The Greatest Love of All. Whitney Houston was a huge idol of mine.

 Wm: Those seem like safer songs for a young voice. Would you agree that some of the songs that  were written for Houston’s large voice and range, might be of interest for an operatic soprano to include in her repertory?

DdN: No, I don’t think that pop singing is for everyone. When I sing pop music, I try to sing in a way that you can’t hear that I’m an opera singer. I know that classically trained groups like Blake and Il Divo sing pop songs like those of Toni Braxton, but when they do, I don’t think it’s with an operatic sound.

For an opera singer to try on those big Houston and Mariah Carey songs, you sure want to know what you’re doing. You don’t want to belt in a chest voice. Some of the big-voiced singers like Barbara Streisand know what they are doing, but a lot of pop singers who belt these big ballads might be in surgery a few months later.

Whitney Houston was truly a star. There’s never been a voice like hers. But with all pop singing, there can be eventual vocal deterioration, and belting a song can accelerate this vocal decline. The vocal world knows that Houston was trying to make a comeback from a rough phase in her life, both personally and vocally.

Deterioration of one’s vocal abilities is really tough for a singer. An actor can do other roles, but a singer depends entirely on the preservation of the voice. Caution is very important. I’m committed to making wise decisions on what I sing and how and when I sing it.

[Below: Danielle De Niese, with trophy from the Classical Brit Awards, London; edited image, based on a promotional photograph, from www.danielledeniece.co.uk.]

Wm: How did your vocal training proceed during that period of your life? 

DdN:  I continued to enter vocal competitions called Eisteddfods, competing in categories of arias and sacred songs – whatever competitions were  available for a child. I did them mainly because it gave me an opportunity to perform the classical songs and arias that I was practicing in my voice lessons.

As it happened, I sort of “cleaned up” in all, as a 10 year old vocal contestant, in all the categories offered to singers up to age 18!

My parents were writing to universities both within and outside of Australia, to ask what to do with a child of ten that is talented and advanced in her vocal studies. The University of Melbourne’s Victorian College for the Arts replied that they could not admit a ten year old to an arts college.

However, the United States, at the time, had a much greater presence of pre-college educational programs. We applied to the Colburn School in L. A., which is affiliated with the University of Southern California and has a pre-college, after-school curriculum for the arts. I received a full scholarship to study there.

It was a brilliant chance to continue my training. I needed a lot of training and America gave me that. I continued in voice, piano, music theory and counterpoint, modern dance and tap dance. My tap teachers wanted me to become a Zap Tapper. I knew that I wanted to be an opera singer, but I liked being able to do these other things.

Wm: After you left Australia for Los Angeles, you took part in the local TV show “L. A. Kids”.  Did the television experiences In Australia and L. A.  prove to be helpful for your later career?

DdN: Yes, I hosted a television show for United Paramount Network in Los Angeles, called L. A. Kids, and I won an Emmy for my work on the show when I was 16 years old, which was pretty cool. Having ongoing experiences with performing on television has proven very useful to my career. Being aware of where the camera is, and knowing how to ignore its presence is an important skill when performing in high definition televised performances, or in a filmed documentary.

Wm: And which of these early experiences do you find most useful?

DdN: Everything I ever trained to do has been important. However, I do emphasize that one the most valuable ways to prepare for an opera career is studying languages. But the fact that I trained in dancing gave me such an understanding of my body, how to be comfortable in my skin, how to incarnate a character using all of my tools as an actor, which include voice and body language.

Wm: Not every talent scout child winner, not even Beverly Sills, ends up debuting at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera at age 19. Would you recount the decision points that led to your selection for the Met’s Lindemann Young Artists Program? What are your thoughts about the training received from the Lindemann program?

DdN: I got into the program in an interesting way. I had already made my operatic debut at the Los Angeles Opera at age 15. When it came time to decide about colleges, I had been accepted to Yale, Indiana University, Oberlin, and Juilliard, but I wanted to go to UCLA, because they had a great program and I could stay with home with my family and brother.

I had not entertained the idea of doing anything in New York because I felt that I couldn’t leave Los Angeles. Then, during my senior year in high school, I was asked to sing in Claude-Michel Schoenberg’s “Les Miserables” on Broadway after I turned 18 in order to learn the role of Eponine.

I was still in high school and had homework assignments, but this amazing offer came along, and I was really excited to do it! Taking the  offer meant that I had to fly in New York. I stayed with a friend of my mom and took my high school physics homework with me.

While I was there, my mom had organized for me to meet with the voice teacher, Ruth Falcon. They arranged for me to sing for Ruth, just to see if she would take me on as a student, possibly for graduate studies.

I sang for half an hour. Ruth asked me why I wanted to go to UCLA, rather than coming to work with her at the Mannes New School of Music. I was offered a position at the Mannes School to begin the next year. I finished high school and my commitments to “Les Miz”.  My family sat down with me and we all agreed that the Mannes School was a huge opportunity and the right thing for me to do, and my family came to New York with me when to move me into college.

Wm: And was it through the Mannes School that you came to the attention of the Met?

DdN: Yes, as a freshman I auditioned for, and was permitted to participate in, Mannes’ Opera Program. After further audition, I was cast as Susanna in Mozart’s “Nozze di Figaro”. This was quite unusual to be given the lead in the opera: the Susanna of the second cast was my dormitory Resident Advisor, who was ten years older than me and we had a laugh about it!

[Below: Danielle De Niese as Susanna in the 2010 San Francisco Opera production of Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro”; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

The Mannes College of Music was the smaller conservatory of the top three in New York City.  Because of this, I had this wonderful performance opportunity there. My parents were told that if I had attended the Juilliard school, that I could not have expected to have been given the chance to perform any lead roles in my freshman year. The Met came to this performance of “Figaro” at Mannes College of Music and then invited me to audition for the Met, after only eight months in New York, when I was still 18.

WB: Being asked to audition for the Met at any age is a rare experience.

DdN: Yes, and after they heard me,  I was granted a main stage audition for the Met’s Musical Director, James Levine.

Ruth Falcon had seen I was very advanced as a musician. I had studied counterpoint and music theory, but we still knew I needed training. I called my manager to ask him what had been the outcome of the audition.  I was told the Met had given me the role of Barbarina (Cherubino’s girlfriend) in a new Jonathan Miller production of “Figaro” starring Renee Fleming, Bryn Terfel, Cecilia Bartoli, Dwayne Croft and Susan Mentzer. I really could not believe my ears. It was a dream cast and Barbarina was a very coveted role in this production.

However, they said they were not sure that I was old enough for the program, whether I was mature enough and whether I can handle the rigorous demands made of a Met artist. I thought about what they said. It was the right assessment to make. It is one thing for me to audition and be on stage, but another to go into a rigorous program at 18 years of age with people twice my age.

I was given the opportunity for  coaching with John Fisher, who wanted to ascertain if I have an innate understanding of music, theory, and the opera’s background. Luckily, because I had the piano and music theory training, it worked out well. I passed Fisher’s coaching with flying colors, and was then invited to join the Lindemann Young Artist’s Program, having been considered for an important assignment already.

In Part 2 of this interview (see Rising Stars: An Interview with Danielle De Niese, Part 2), we continue the discussion of Danielle De Niese’s operatic training and her successes in such roles as Susanna, Cleopatra, Ariel and Norina.