Rising Stars: An Interview with Danielle De Niese, Part 2

The following interview was conducted in the administrative offices of the San Diego Opera, whose facilitation of this interview is greatly appreciated.  For the first part of the interview, see: Rising Stars: An Interview with Danielle De Niese, Part 1.

Wm: Your career differs from that of almost every other artist in that you were simultaneously enrolled in an important music conservatory, in the Met’s Lindemann program, and had already a Met debut planned.

DdN: From the standpoint of completion of my college work, it  was unfortunate that these career opportunities aligned up the way they did they did, but that’s the way it happened. I received private tutoring at Mannes for two years while working and studying in the Lindemann Young Artist’s Program, and performing on stage at the Met.

I was able to obtain credit for several of the Mannes courses and passed out of some courses because of my ten years previous study. But they have a strong core curriculum requirement which I really admire, as Mannes believes in crafting rounded artists, and some of those courses I haven’t finished, because there was no way to tutor privately in those courses. I hope to finish my degree  in the future.

Wm: After you made your Met debut in 1998 as Barbarina in Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro”, you returned eleven years later to the same Met production in the role of Susanna. That role is the longest in the opera, yet the Susannas sometimes seems overshadowed by the artists who are cast as the Countess, or Figaro, or the Count. Obviously, when you perform Susanna, it helps restore the centrality of that character to the opera. Do you feel a special rapport with Susanna?

DdN: Very much. In high school English I had written a 20 page research paper on Da Ponte’s adaptation of Beaumarchais. When I sang Susanna at 18 at Mannes I felt that the role was one that would fit me like a glove, a role that I was born to sing. When I got to sing Barbarina, I would watch Cecilia Bartoli and Bryn Terfel as Susanna and Figaro, and dreamt that I would someday sing Susanna at the Met. Then it happened, 11 years later.

[Below: the Count Almaviva (Mariusz Kwiecien, left) tries to persuade Susanna (Danielle De Niese, right) to join him in an extramarital liaison; edited image, based on a Dan Rest photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]

When I did Susanna at Mannes, I didn’t speak Italian yet. In fact, when I was 18, before I took an intensive summer course in Italian, I had translated every single word of “Nozze di Figaro” with a dictionary, which I still have. (My translation is 400 pages long.)

After my two month intensive Italian course in Siena, I did the same thing with French for seven weeks in Paris and  then took a shorter course in German, so I say that I speak two and three-quarters foreign languages.

Wm: Even in a small role, it must have been exciting to make a Met debut in Jonathan Miller’s new production.

DdN: I loved the Jonathan Miller production of “Nozze”. I also performed in his production of Verdi’s “Falstaff” at the Santa Fe Opera Festival, which was my Santa Fe debut.

Wm: Many of today’s operas stars are under-recorded, but you signed a contract with Decca Records and already have an impressive discography of aria albums. Are there complete opera recordings in the planning stage, and are there particular recordings that you would like to do in the future?

DdN: There aren’t any complete recordings in the works. There are so many opera recordings that now exist, one asks how many recordings of an opera can there be? There are so many things I want to record. I need two lifetimes to sing all the music I want to sing.

Wm: Yet the albums of arias that you have released so far do provide documentation of the sound of your voice.

DdN: Developing a studio recording of arias is a responsibility that very few singers have. Many of the people who will listen to an artist’s recording in remote parts of the world might never have the opportunity to see that artist in live performance.

[Below: the album cover for Danielle De Niese’s recording of arias by Handel; image designed by Decca Records.]

With so much repertory to choose from, I’m glad that I stuck with the operas that I ‘ve done, and that my career path has gone the way it has. Singing Handel and other Baroque repertoire, as well as  Mozart, was the right thing for me to do.

Ideally, recordings should provide a documentation of how an artist’s voice changes over time. The albums I have recorded show how the timbre of my voice is changing.  My 26 year old voice does not sound the same as my voice at 28 or 30.

But beyond how my voice sounds, I want to hear the character I am performing in any recording I make, not just the vocal music. To do this, I have to funnel all the elements that express and interpret the character into the voice alone, since the recording does not have the role’s staging and costumes and context.

Wm: In my interview with one of your Met “Nozze” colleagues, John Relyea, the Figaro, he cited the camaraderie of that particular Met cast as one of the most memorable experiences of his career. Are there operas and casts that you have particularly enjoyed being part of?

 DdN: I loved both the original cast and also the cast of the revival with John Relyea, as well as the 2001 “Falstaff” cast at the Santa Fe Opera. I remain friends with Bryn Terfel and have had lovely encounters with Renee Fleming, and  I really enjoyed performances of Mozart’s “Cosi fan Tutte: and Monteverdi’s “Coronation of Poppea” in Lyons. And, of course, I adored the magic of my 2005 debut at Glyndebourne Festival Opera as Cleopatra in the David McVicar production of Handel’s “Giulio Cesare”. The cast really bonded in the making of that production.

Wm: The videos of you performing Cleopatra in “Guilio Cesare” has a big audience on the Internet. Was that one of your favorite productions?

DdN: Yes, it is one of my all-time favorite experiences, and it was a huge milestone in my career. I believe that McVicar’s production of  “Julius Caesar” has become an instant classic. It changed the way people looked at opera, pushing singers to another level. People are so moved by the piece.

[Below: Danielle De Niese as Cleopatra in Handel’s “Julius Caesar”; edited image, based on a Tristram Kenton photograph for the Glyndebourne Festival.]

I can never get away from the iconic role of Cleopatra. It has such resonance with people, some of whom tell me that their children watch this “Julius Caesar” at home. Professors as well as students and even children have responded to it.

Wm: How would you encourage people to attend live performances of opera?

DdN: I think it’s important that we the artists take a lead role in promoting opera and classical music. The “faces” of opera are those that should be waving the flag for the art form. I want to be the person that tells people “This is why you need to go to the opera”. That’s why I do so much outreach visiting kids.

When kids come to the opera, I don’t want an opera performance to be an excursion like a trip to a farm or a museum trip at school that will become a distant memory of childhood. They should feel that there is no barrier between themselves and a performer.

I share with them: this is what it’s like to feel what the artist feels, this is what it’s like to have a career like mine, and to have a chance to do something I love as a career. It can give them a way of connecting in a deeper way with the experience and gives them a real respect for what the artist does.

Wm: In my interview with David Daniels last summer about this past winter’s new production of the pastiche opera, “The Enchanted Island” at the Met, he wondered what the reaction would be to the idea of pastiche operas, and to that one in particular.  As the Ariel in that production, what do you think of that pastiche, and of the concept in general?

DdN: I also wondered about how people would react, and about how the French and Italian arias would fit together. Stylistically, French and Italian baroque music is sung quite differently. Since I have sung plenty of French baroque, I imagined I might have been in conflict as how to do the trills.

Luckily, I didn’t have to address this particular issue because the music that was drawn together for the role of Ariel contained no French baroque excerpts. But in the case of the other roles, what I discovered was that the syntax of the English language brought all the styles together. The French baroque style is so evident when sung in French, but, sung in English, you don’t hear the French style of vocal performance that much. The audiences, including children, loved it.

[Below: Danielle De Niese as Ariel in the New York Met’s pastiche opera”The Enchanted Island”; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph for the Metropolitan Opera.]

There was a general ambivalence about the pastiche idea. Some thought that it could be a game changer and could open up the commissioning of new operas using old music. Now, you either have new productions of old pieces or modern works. With a pastiche, you have the modern themes of a new libretto and the melodies of old music. If it’s a success, the future of pastiches could be limitless.

Together, we put a lot of work into it. It turned out to be a great display of juxtaposition and paradox in every way – an homage to everything baroque but with a new story based on two old classic Shakespearean plays; period baroque-era flat sets, but with new stage images, and modern technology of 3-D imagery.

Wm: You seem to enjoying the role of Norina in David Gately’s “Wild West” staging at San Diego Opera. Do you feel a rapport with Norina and is performing in this staging as fun as it looks?

DdN: Yes. Ive had a fantastic time with this. I love Norina, and I loved doing my first Adina in Donizetti’s “L’Elisir Amore” at the Glyndebourne Festival. This is my second Donizetti role. This is the right style for me to be singing before I go on to heavier roles. I want to have a long career. I would love to do Adina and Norina for many years. I have said no to both roles in the past, and feel that it’s an early trap for young  singers.

[Below: Danielle De Niese as Norina in San Diego Opera’s “Wild West” production of Donizetti’s “Don Pasquale”; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

I waited for Norina until I knew I would be ready. By 2010, I felt ready for that role. I’m really cautious in what I will agree to for future years.

Wm: Are there roles that you have dropped from your repertory?

DdN: I’ve not dropped anything out. I thought that I dropped Despina in 2008, because I was working on a different part of my voice technically, but once that work was done, I sang it again in 2010 and it felt wonderful. There are some roles that are low for me, but none that I have decided to stop singing.

Wm: What other roles are you planning to add?

DdN: I will be doing my first Adele in Johann Strauss’ “Die Fledermaus”.

Wm: Where does your family call home these days?

DdN: My home is at Glyndebourne, in Sussex, England. My parents now live in New Jersey and my brother, who completed his doctorate in Pharmacy, moved back to Los Angeles where we grew up. I’m split rather evenly between Europe and America so it means I can see my family a lot, which is great.

Wm: And how do you relax between performance commitments?

DdN: Well, today is a day that I would count as a “relax” day between performances, but I’ve come in to see you today and am very happy to do so! When I have off days, I just lay low and replenish my energy needed for performances. Also, if my family are in town, I will usually spend massive amounts of time with them relaxing and laughing, which always rejuvenates me and makes me happy.

Wm: Thank you, Danielle.

DdN: Thanks again!


For my past reviews of Danielle De Niese performances, see:  De Niese, Castronovo, Del Carlo Delight in a Delirously Daffy “Don Pasquale” – San Diego Opera, March 10, 2012, and also,

Copley Directs, Luisotti Conducts, Sparkling “Nozze” Ensemble – San Francisco Opera, October 3, 2010, and also,

Festival Casting for Lyric Opera’s “Nozze di Figaro” – Chicago, March 9, 2010.