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Danielle de Niese
A Diva for the Digital Age
by Gil Carbajal
Diva Diaries, a BBC documentary about soprano Danielle De Niese, highlights in its seven episodes not only this soprano’s beauty, charm, and glamour but also many of the elements that have gone into making what has often been a precocious career. The documentary (available on YouTube) and an article written by de Niese herself in the Huffington Post last December are evidence of her multimedia acumen. Her aim is to communicate, and she does so by all the means at hand.
The documentary captures some of the finer moments of her soaring career, including her Met debut in 1998 as Barbarina in Le nozze di Figaro as well as her widely acclaimed interpretation of Cleopatra in a production of Giulio Cesare at Glyndebourne in 2005, in which she was described as an “all-singing and all-dancing Cleopatra.” It also shows glimpses into other aspects of De Niese’s career and character. She is uncompromisingly enthusiastic about her career. She is a fashion maven. She dexterously employs a range of social networks such as MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter to communicate with friends and fans. And she takes every opportunity to share her passion for opera with children and adolescents—so much so that one fan called her an “Opera Evangelist.”
Looking over her early experience and achievements, one can understand the poise, confidence, charm, and charisma de Niese exudes in both public and private. And it’s no wonder that in the little more than 12 years since joining the Met’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program as the youngest singer ever admitted, she has now firmly established her reputation in the opera world, particularly in the Baroque repertoire.
While in Madrid last spring performing the lead role of Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea, de Niese took time to chat with CS about the beginnings of her career, her efforts at outreach, and some of the challenging gigs she has taken on.
I am always curious to know about the childhood origins of a singer’s vocation. How important was music in your family when growing up?
Very important. I grew up with music. My mom took voice lessons, though she never wanted to be a professional classical singer, . . . because she loved to sing classical voice. She also studied piano. And my dad’s parents sang. So there was definitely a lot of classical music in the family. My mom would teach me songs and she noticed when I was one to two years old that I was picking them up very, very quickly and singing on perfect pitch.
Did you begin singing before you began talking?
A little bit! I mean, I definitely was showing signs of being able to grasp and absorb things. At that time, around 1980-81, when I was a small baby, [my parents] recorded lots of things. They have cassettes of me singing when I’m that small.
They enrolled me in a talent school where I took singing and dancing, and they had talent shows. I was five-and-a-half to six years old. When I enrolled in some of these courses, we were told by the teachers that . . . I couldn’t be in the Christmas Concert because I hadn’t been there since January. And my parents were very relaxed and said, “That’s fine. She just wants to do it for fun and she can be in the concert next year.” Then, of course, December rolls along, and the teachers said, “We’re putting her in the concert. She’s picked up all the routines, and we’re giving her the lead now. She’s standing in front.”
My life has sort of gone in that kind of way. They say actors are bitten by the acting bug. I was just bitten by the singing bug, the performing bug.
So you loved the Christmas Pageant?
A lot! I couldn’t wait to get out there! And I think I’ve always been like that. I really have loved that feeling of connecting with people and that feeling of performing, and I like it. And as a kid I liked it. As a child you do something well and people praise you, and you enjoy it and you only want to do more. So I did singing. I did jazz, ballet, tap dance, drama. And from age six or seven to 10 in Australia I was going to Tony Bartuccio’s school of dance every Saturday doing all these lessons, and then doing voice lessons and drama lessons. It was my favorite day of the week. I would just jump out of bed in the morning on Saturday to go to these classes. I totally loved it.
When I was around eight, there were these competitions called Eisteddfod (a Welsh word). These exist in Wales still. They’re basically like small singing competitions for young kids in categories—you’d have sacred solo for nine and under, etc. And you’d have all these little kids singing. They awarded a first, second, and third place. It was a performing opportunity; it was a way to sing what I was learning in my voice lessons. I started classical voice at eight-and-a-half—a feat in and of itself because my parents had to find a teacher who would take me on. They did find a lovely lady, Amanda Colliver, who was singing with the State Opera at the time.
But it was great to have a chance then to perform in the Eisteddfod. My parents would drive me on the weekend to different cities all around the southern part of Australia. And it just so happened that I was winning all of them—like, every one I competed in I came in first place. So, OK, it starts out that you’re under nine and then under 10, and then under 13, under 15—and the judges have to get up and explain why they’ve chosen a nine-year-old over a 15-year-old.
I was completely doing it for the fun of it. I wanted to learn. I wanted to absorb. And in these competitions you get the comments from judges who critique you, and my parents have them all. I looked at them when I last went home because I had forgotten about them. And it was quite remarkable for someone nine years old. I won all these competitions and they were great, positive reinforcement for me. I never went to win—I went to perform. And this is really where it all started, because it was in those moments that I thought, “I want to be an opera singer. This is what I want.” I knew it then.
Was your need for more performance education the factor that led your family to move to the U.S.?
My parents saw that there was training available there—whole schools that were just to train young kids in the classical world. This probably exists in Australia now, but at that time, I had done just about everything that I could possibly do as a 10-year-old. I won every Eisteddfod. I won a national competition. I’d done musical theatre. I’d done voice-overs. I’d done commercials. I’d done everything. All I had left was to enter into the Victorian College of the Arts, which is the big music conservatory there. But they wouldn’t take a 10-year-old! So the Colburn School in Los Angeles was the perfect place for me because it was all for that kind of age and that kind of talent.
Tell us about your transition from high school to studying in New York.
Well, I missed my high school graduation because I was singing on Broadway in Les Misérables. I actually chose to miss my graduation for that great opportunity. That’s how I got to Mannes College of Music, actually, because while in New York for that Broadway stint, my mom organized (through a little bit of sleuthing) a half-hour audition with Ruth Falcon, a very prominent New York voice teacher, thinking that maybe after my bachelor’s degree at UCLA I could go to New York and do a master’s degree. When I sang for Ruth, she said, “Oh my gosh. You have to come and study with me now!” I said, “I’ve got to go to UCLA and do the opera program there.” “No, no, no!” she said. “You can’t do that. You can’t go to UCLA.” Daaa! She just turned everything around for me!
She organized an audition at Mannes for the next day, and I just went with it without really thinking about what was happening. I thought, “This is a great opportunity.” I sang Lieder and “Claire de lune” by Fauré and a couple of arias from Julius Caesar. They were bowled over and gave me a full scholarship almost instantaneously to come to Mannes. Suddenly my whole life turned around, and that began a domino effect.
Within a year after arriving in New York at age 19, you were performing at the Met with Cecilia Bartoli and Renée Fleming. How was that?
And with James Levine conducting, Christmas broadcast, simulcast PBS broadcast—it was crazy! It wouldn’t have happened in the same way even if I had gone to another New York college, because one of the things about Mannes was that they’re small. So you get the personal attention. I had considered going to Juilliard, but they said to me and my parents, “Freshmen don’t get any performing opportunities. They won’t get any lead roles. You have to be in pool for a while.” So there might have been fewer opportunities for me to perform if I had gone to a school with a bigger program. That was the key.
You mentioned something about a domino effect in your career.
I meant in the sense of one thing leading to another. You know, if I hadn’t gotten to Mannes College, the Met might not have heard me. After they heard me, I got into the Young Artist Program. There other people heard me, and then I got offered roles. It just went on like that.
Did you work at all professionally after your Met debut in ‘Figaro’?
Well, I wasn’t working while I was in the program, but I was doing auditions. For example, I did an audition for Peter [de Caluwe from the Netherlands Opera] when I was in that first year in the program. One day I will ask what he saw in me at that age. He offered me Cleopatra in a new production of Julius Caesar in 2001. He just saw something in me, and I thought, “I’m going to go for it!” That’s how I started with the whole Baroque thing really, with Julius Caesar.
Before that you were studying everything in opera, all the repertoire. Did you have any favorites?
Maybe Mozart. I was doing all my Lieder and all my recital repertoire, but I was singing Mozart while I was at the Met. After Barbarina, I sang Papagena, and Poussette in Manon. But doing that Cleopatra really got the ball rolling on the European side of things. I started getting loads of offers for Baroque stuff. It was great. It was really good for me.
Who were your most important teachers?
Ruth Falcon from my college years, and also I studied with different singers during the program. I switched teachers temporarily to Patricia McCaffrey who is another very excellent teacher. I studied with both Ruth and Trish while in the program. Then, as I came out, I went back to Ruth—and now the other two big teachers in my life are Gerald Martin Moore and Dame Kiri Te Kanawa.
You started working with those teachers after your career had launched?
Yeah. Gerald started to coach me for one of my albums. When I saw that he was totally brilliant, I wanted him to prepare me and coach me for stuff. Then I realized that he was a teacher as well, so that’s when I really started with Gerald in 2008. I also studied with Dame Kiri for the first time that year. She’s an idol of mine since I was a child. In Australia, Kiri was like the big [thing] and she was from New Zealand, which is in the southern hemisphere. Kiri has a mixed background like me, so I felt like, ooh, that’s my role model! She had won the Sun Aria Competition, which is the biggest competition you can win as an adult singer in Australia. My dream when I was a kid was that I wanted to be like Kiri and win the Sun Aria Competition and be a famous singer [laughs].
You use Twitter and Facebook pretty regularly.
Yeah, I tweet. Funny little thing, “tweeting,” isn’t it? I don’t do it as much as I could, but I will do more. I have a MySpace page, a Facebook page, and my website. We need to use the modern media opportunities that we have because opera is so much more visible than it used to be. Now you can get everything on YouTube. The opening [of L’incoronazione di Poppea] was just taking place here in Madrid on Sunday and colleagues came to me and said, “Do you know the dress rehearsal is already on YouTube?” That kind of accessibility is something that is just part of this modern life. Having a website where people can leave you messages, having a MySpace page where people can become a friend is only just a way of connecting with your audience in a slightly more personal way.
Especially for kids it’s a huge plus. I’ve done outreach since I was a kid at the Colburn School, going out to intercity schools in L.A. where music budgets were basically vaporized and singing for them. It definitely has a lasting effect when you’re a kid of their age. When I did it, I was 12 and they were [around] 13. So to see a 12-year-old come—someone your age, a kid who’s just like you—go up there and sing, and then do a question-and-answer session, it has a different level of acceptability than [with] an older person.
Because I started young, I really understand what it is to fall in love with something at that age. So I try to talk to kids about that and tell them that you’re never too young to start to dream about something. If you feel like you’re going against the grain by going with classical music, look at me! I did that, and I’m so happy and really get so much joy from performing. I just do my best to spread the love, especially with my website where I have all the tracks from my albums. They’re there in their entirety for people to listen to because just to share that music with people is great, and I hope more people will listen to classical music.
Have you been asked to give masterclasses?
I have, yes. I did my first masterclass when I was 20 in the Young Artist Program. I did it in Omaha, Nebraska, at a college, so they were all older than me. That was really, really weird and cool at the same time. It’s quite an odd thing to talk technique when you are still mastering yours. But great singers will say the same thing. Kiri would always say to me, “I’m just telling you what I know. I mean, I’m not sure, but I’m telling you what I know.”
Your debut in the role of Cleopatra was with the Netherlands Opera under the direction of Peter de Caluwe in 2001. But it was your performance in David McVicar’s song-and-dance production at Glyndebourne four years later that put you in the front ranks of the opera world. You were called in to substitute for an ailing Rosemary Joshua. How much notice did you get?
A couple of months, a month and a half maybe.
At least you knew the role. The novelty was that you had to dance as well.
Yeah, I didn’t know that really. I was a week late because I was finishing a performance in Chicago. I arrived and met David McVicar, and he was like, “Oh, nice to meet you. OK, go on up there.” And three minutes later, Andrew George the choreographer was saying, “OK, so you go five, six, seven, eight and one and two and three and four, hand and feet.” Thank heavens I had dance training! I was able to pick it up.
They must have known that.
No, they didn’t know that. The beginning scene, which was already done, was not created for me. And that’s why when everyone came to me and said, “Tailor made!” I thought, “The devil! It was actually tailor made for someone else!” They had carved out four hours for the first rehearsal, but in one hour we were done. And then, of course, everything that came after that in Cleopatra, all the other scenes were built from them knowing what I was capable of.
There’s a YouTube video of your performance in that production and you put your cigarette out in an umbrella case.
[Laughs] That’s a classic David McVicar thing.
It was choreographed?
Yeah, although I did the same performance in 2009, and on the premiere, before I started my routine, the umbrella broke in two. I realized I was holding an umbrella with my four fingers together and I thought, “Which piece do I let go of? I’ve got to let go of one now. Which one do I need more, the part that opens or the stick? I have one second to make this decision!” So I threw away the part that opens and then for the next six minutes the sweat that was coming! I had to re-choreograph in my head. I was singing a phrase and thinking of the next phrase and what the movement was and whether I had the right piece of umbrella for that movement and, if not, what movement I would do instead.
The gods can’t present a worse situation for you in a time like that. And the funniest thing was that barely anyone noticed! I came off stage about to explode of adrenaline. People who knew the piece were like, “Hey, what happened to your umbrella?” But a lot of people said that it was wonderful. And I said, “You didn’t notice that I was missing half an umbrella?” Those things happen. You have to be ready for anything in the theater.
Another extraordinary performing experience was when you had to learn an aria for the Brit Awards in less than 24 hours.
Well, I have to tell you about that day. I got the call about doing it 11:30 the night before. I was at home just relaxing, really. I was planning to go to the Brits as guest of my record company, sit there, eat duck and, you know, watch the awards from the Prom part where the tables are. Suddenly it was, “Can you come and sing ‘Les filles de Cadix’”? And I said, “The filles de what?” They said, “‘Les filles de Cadix,’ the song by Delibes. That’s what the other soprano was going to sing.”
I said, “Oh my!” I offered to sing a song from my album. “Tell them I’ll sing ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ or something like that.” And they said, “You can’t do that because they haven’t rehearsed it.” I had to go to iTunes and listen to it. And then I said, “Maybe. I don’t know.” I called my manager and I called my mom—not in that order—and I said, “What do I do? This is a big opportunity, and what if I don’t remember the words? It’s strophic. It has three verses. What if I screw this up?” And both my mom and [my manager] Alec [Treuhaft] said, “The point will probably be whether you can perform it and have a good time, whether you get up there and do it well.” And I thought to myself, “Yes, if the circumstances are working out, yeah, I can go out there and have a good time.” And they said, “Well that’s your answer.”
I had rehearsal the next day for “Poppea.” So I did the rehearsal, and at noon a car came to pick me up—and just before, a fax came through with the music. So I had from noon to 1:30 to learn the piece. I learned it in the car going up to London. And I always joke that there’s a driver with WestOne Cars somewhere who knows “Les filles de Cadix” by heart because all I did was sing it over and over again, trying to learn it and remember all the words. It’s not often that I shake, but when I went to the dress rehearsal there were like 17 people pulling at me saying, “Can you do this? Can you do that? Go to your dressing room. Do you have your music? Can you go upstairs? Do you need water?” Blah, blah, blah.
I went to the rehearsal, and my hands were really shaking while I’m holding a fax copy, not even an original. And my record company reps were there like they were sort of watching. I was so nervous! And I wasn’t having a good time. Not the first time, anyway. And then I just let loose and I got a huge applause. And I said, “Could I do it one more time?” So they let me do it again. I let go a little bit more and I felt like “Baby, I’m going to have a good time tonight!”
Ultimately I went up there and I did have a good time. It all worked for the best and it was one of the bigger successes of the Brits that night. It was a good experience for learning what I’m made of.
You can see Danielle de Niese’s performance of “Les filles de Cadix” at the Brit Awards on YouTube, as well as much of her performance dancing and singing in the Glyndebourne production of Giulio Cesare. Also hear and see more about her at her website: www.danielledeniese.com.
Gil Carbajal is a freelance journalist based in Madrid who worked for many years in English in the international service of Spanish National Radio. There he had direct and continual access to the music world in Spain. His radio interviews included such great singers as Teresa Berganza, Plácido Domingo, Ainhoa Arteta, Felicity Lott, Luciano Pavarotti, and Kiri Te Kanawa. He reports, on occasion, for the Voice of America and Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.