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On the Road with Danielle de Niese

Danielle de Niese is back in her hometown of New York this month for her New York recital debut at Carnegie Hall on February 27. This comes directly on the heels of a run of performances at the Met as Euridice in Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice opposite Stephanie Blythe’s Orfeo, for which Blythe and de Niese received excellent reviews, including from Anthony Tommasini in The New York Times and Martin Bernheimer in The Financial Times. At twenty-nine, the American soprano—of Sri Lankan and Dutch heritage, born in Australia—has reached the opera world’s A-list at a much earlier age than most contemporary opera singers.

She recently spoke about Handel and Mozart—two of her her favorite composers—what it has been like growing up in the public eye, her U.S. recital tour this month, performing for a camera versus for a live audience, and why she thinks she’ll have to be dragged off the stage when she’s 80 years old.

Jennifer Melick: Congratulations on your performances in the Met’s Orfeo ed Euridice this winter. I caught it twice—live at the Met’s January 14 performance—that turned out to be the night Stephanie Blythe was ill and did not sing. So I came back for the Saturday HD movie-theater broadcast on January 24.

Danielle De Niese: I haven’t had a chance to hear the broadcast yet, but I’ve heard from people about it.

Melick: What sort of feedback have you gotten?

De Niese: Amazing feedback. I’ve gotten loads of messages on my website, and my friends who went to the movie theaters all over the world, in Japan, they totally loved it. They said that there are some benefits to seeing it up close, and the things they thought would be distracting or not as good as a live performance in the house are actually regulated in a way, for example the audio, and the sort of sound experience, that didn’t deter from the whole experience of viewing an opera in the movies. And they said that seeing the detail and seeing things they wouldn’t necessarily have seen made it special.

Melick: One thing that strikes me about watching a live broadcast in a movie theater is that people are applauding for performers who aren’t actually physically there. The theater where I saw the broadcast was packed, there were maybe five seats left, in a large theater. At times, the audience wanted to clap, but because there was no-one to receive the applause, they seemed unsure what to do. Did you get feedback from a variety of places—say, in Europe?

De Niese: I got feedback from someone who was in one of the big houses in London, when it was shown, and they said to me I got huge applause from people in the audience there, that I went down really well with the London audience. Orfeo is a very difficult piece, because there are lots of well-known pieces from Orfeo, but the arias, except for Orfeo’s aria [“Che faro senza Euridice”] people don’t know when they might clap. Some of the dances are punctuated in a way that it’s clear that that’s the end of a number. But then there are other bits where it’s not. There’s a duet that Stephanie and I sing, and it’s somewhat punctuated musically, but it’s unclear whether we’re going to keep going or not, because they don’t know the piece, or that section of the music, I can see exactly why people would doubt it. In Bohème or something, people know.

Melick: Gluck wrote it intentionally to encourage more continuity, because he wanted to get away from “numbers” opera and back to a more story-driven kind of opera.

De Niese: Exactly—don’t forget, we don’t exactly have the Italian aria form yet, and we don’t have da capi yet, and we don’t have those forms in this opera. So basically there’s not something in a particular where … yes, there’s a recapitulation, but it’s not ornamented, it’s not made virtuosic, and that would require an audience to definitely respond with applause.

Melick: It’s funny, because to me it’s the clearest—to me, even if you had very little musical training, the ABAs in Orfeo are so obvious, so you’d think it would be easier to know when to clap. But it doesn’t come to the end with a big bang, does it? A lot of the endings are gentle—to my ear, at least.

De Niese: And I think that probably people don’t know the inner bits of Orfeo on the same level that they would know, say, Barbiere. I just think it’s a lesser-performed production than your typical, average standard repertoire. So everybody knows “Che faro” so they’re totally ready to see how that is, everybody knows the dance of the blessed spirits, those would be the two most popular numbers. And the rest is stuff that people who know the piece know it; people who don’t know the piece will love it, but they might not know when to applaud.

Melick: Before we talk about your recital, I wonder if you could talk a little bit about your earlier experience on television. When you were a teenager, you hosted an arts showcase. Do you think having that earlier experience, knowing the cameras are on you … I could see at one point there was a camera close-up, I think it was about when they were about to bring you onstage, and there was another shot where you could see the second cameraman. So you could feel—obviously you have these cameras onstage with you, above and around you and so forth.

De Niese: I didn’t know that cameraman was going to be there! We did a test run, but when you do a test run, you don’t have the cameramen onstage. I had no idea he was going to be there! I hope I didn’t look like a deer in front of headlights.

Melick: Not at all. I was just surprised because it was obvious how very close they were to you.

De Niese: They are quite close. The experience of having done a television show, and having been on the other side of the camera most of my life, there’s a certain level of comfort I feel. And I don’t feel as if the camera is invasive to my personal space, because I’ve gotten used to it, having been on TV as a child. That’s a gift, I think. Because in these times, when media is merging, it’s important to be able to cross that bridge and feel comfortable and feel like you can be yourself. That’s the most important thing, I think yes, people feel uncomfortable, and there are definitely times when any of us can feel a little strange, it’s totally surreal at times—but as long as you can try to be yourself, try not to clam up!

Melick: Is there any difference in the way you perform—if you’re in a large theater like the Met with no camera, and then when there is, do you do anything differently?

De Niese: Sure. The one thing that’s different: if you talk to an actor who’s been in the theater world, on Broadway, and then they go into the television world or the movies, you have to reduce things because the lens is much more zoomed in. Therefore you can have reactions that are much more in real, in a sort of more minimal way, and when you’re on a bigger stage, sometimes you do need to adapt something to the size. But strangely enough, it’s not something that I think about. It’s something that happens naturally, based on the fact that I feel very connected with the public when I’m on the stage. So therefore if there’s more public, or more space, your natural sphere, your presence as an artist, just adapts to occupy that space. I mean, at least that’s how it is for me—I have no idea how it is for other people! I’ve never really paid attention to it and though, “Oh, now I must do more, now I must do less,” you just sort of pay attention to it in a visceral way.

Melick: So tell me a little about your recital tour, where you’re going, and the range of music you’ll be performing—there’s everything from Handel, which you’re probably best known for at this point—all the way up to Poulenc. How did you choose your program?

De Niese: It was so difficult, because I have a lot of repertoire, in terms of recital rep. And I had a really tough time getting this program down to a size that would actually be plausible for an audience. Because I love these composers that I’ve chosen so much, and I really wanted to include entire sets of songs—which would have had the audience there for three hours! So, it was quite difficult. I love French music, so I knew I was going to do a French set, and again, how do you pick between Debussy and Fauré, and between Duparc and Poulenc. I thought Poulenc was definitely a little bit more edgy, which fit the program better, because I have a lot of beautiful, impressionistic music in the Bizet set that I’m doing, and little bit in this Grieg set that I’m doing, which is very nature-oriented and about beauty … I didn’t want to pick anything that was too impressionistic in terms of French composers, so I picked these Poulenc songs that are jaded, they have a very different color to them. They’re intensely French, profound while being sort of jaded at the same time, and sort of deeply romantic. And so again, totally favorite of mine. The Handel is a huge favorite of mine—as you said, Handel has been one of my strengths in the past few years, and I’ve enjoyed very much doing. Semele was great opportunity to do something in English, to break the ice with the audience and bring Handel there. They’re so fun and sprightly and colorful. I think we’ll have a fun time with that.

Melick: You do more than one aria from Semele?

De Niese: I’m doing two: “Endless pleasure” and “Myself I shall adore.” I’m really looking forward to this recital! I’m doing Handel, Grieg, and Wolf songs. [Hugo] Wolf is another one of my composers that I’d want to take to a desert island with me. Again, the Mörike lieder, and I wanted to do the Goethe, and I wanted to do the Italienisches and the Spanisches, and it just didn’t make sense to overcrowd the program with Wolf. So I whittled it down to taking some of my favorites from the Italienisches and Spanisches, and I added one other song which is one of my mother’s favorites, and mine as well. That’s “Verborgenheit.” Wolf actually didn’t like “Verborgenheit,” which is often the case with composers, they don’t like their most famous works. So I was tormented and thought, should I not do this piece by Wolf, because he didn’t like it? But everybody said to me, if you love it you should do it.

Melick: Who do you consult with when you’re going through this process of choosing and weeding out song recital repertoire?

De Niese: A lot of it starts from me, and then I run it by my parents, who know and have watched my recitals. They’re in a very interesting position—they’re my biggest supporters. I’m very lucky to be as close to them as I am. And on one hand they know me so well; they know my voice, they know what suits me, they know things that I do well, they’re at every premiere that I do because I ask them to come out and they fly out and take time off from work and fly to wherever I am, which is an amazing thing. And on the other hand, they also represent the public. So it’s wonderful to get their opinion about things, because I can say, what did you think about this song when I did it? And they will say, well, this we really really loved, this we felt went down well.

Melick: When you say you parents “represent the public,” is that because they’re not professionally musicians and work in other fields.

De Niese: Yes, they have other professions, but my mother did take voice lessons, she’s been my voice teacher. She’s been on that sort of balance between knowing everything about me and my voice and knowing singing and performance and all of that. But she’s also “in the public,” in the sense that I can’t sit and watch myself, where she can see me from the outside. And they understand my inner workings and what’s going on.

Melick: So your parents will fly out and see your performances.

De Niese: They’ll see the dress rehearsal first. And then I’ll go, okay, tell me what it looks like from the outside, and they’ll say “It was fab,” or this or that. It’s wonderful. They’re really looking out for me.

Melick: Between opera and recording and your recitals, a big part of your life is traveling. Do you have someone who takes care of you, do you have a routine of things you do on the road, or familiar things from home that you bring with you? How do you deal with the whole “being on the road” thing?

De Niese: It is a little tougher. I always feel like it’s tougher as a girl, as a woman, you know? Because the amount of things that girls travel with! Maybe that’s being unfair… maybe men would speak up and say, wait a minute! But … the other thing is my bags get really filled up with music books, which weight a lot. So what do I do? I just set up house wherever I go, I try to make myself feel comfortable. The lucky thing is that my parents do come out to wherever I am. So in a sense I don’t feel like I’m away for nine months, or something like that.

Melick: You grew up in L.A., but you’re now living on the East Coast.

De Niese: Right, exactly. I live about 40 minutes outside the city.

Melick: So it must be nice when you have a long run at the Met, say, you can get home easily.

De Niese: It’s wonderful, I can be working, and I can be home. That’s the best of both worlds.

Melick: I wanted to ask you about the Mozart disc—are you in the middle of that, or are you finished recording that?

De Niese: I’ve finished it. It’s in post production, meaning it’s not a fully packaged album. It is finished musically. It was possibly one of the most important moments of my life to record this album, because I’ve dreamt of doing this Mozart album for … a decade! Since I first studied Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro at the Mannes College of Music in my freshman year, I really though, what will it be like to be traveling around the world and have a career and being on the stage, and maybe make a Mozart album one day! I remember dreaming about it. So, to have it finally be realized is just a dream come true, really. I was incredibly honored to get Sir Charles Mackerras to record this album with me … it’s beyond huge, it’s just amazing! I loved working with him so much. We met in 2005, he saw a performance of my Julius Caesar at Glyndebourne, and wrote me a letter which I still travel with—those are some of the things I travel with! I travel with important things like that, a letter, a card like that, from someone that means something to me—and then he invited me to sing for his eightieth birthday party, which was like a gala concert in London. I was so thrilled to participate in that and work with him. And so from then on, we got along very well, and when it came to thinking about Mozart, I thought “Sir Charles” would be such a gift if he said yes, and I was very very lucky that he said yes.

Melick: And to have the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment is also pretty amazing.

De Niese: Oh, completely, and I have such a history with them, having done performances at Glyndebourne in 2005 and 2006, and in 2008, and I also went to Buckingham palace with them—I was invited to sing for Prince Charles and Camilla for a huge fundraiser—well, it wasn’t a fundraiser, it was a huge celebration for the South Bank Centre, actually, for the funds that had been raised, but it had just been restored. And the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment played with me as well, and it was beautiful. So we’ve had lots of different experiences together.

Melick: So it sounds as if Mozart was your earliest love, even before you got to Mannes. Was Mozart your favorite composer?

De Niese: Mozart was my first strength, actually. So that was what I was studying when I was a teenager. One of the first arias I studied was Susanna’s aria from Act IV of Nozze, “De vieni non tardar.” I was singing Handel at the same time as well, so I would say Handel and Mozart. (See a clip of De Niese singing Handel Arias below) But I would say when I started at the Met as a young artist there, when I made my Met debut, which was at 18, when I’d sung for them, I sang Mozart and they cast me as Barbarina in The Marriage of Figaro, which … I couldn’t believe what I was hearing when I found that information out! Mozart was the thing that started out as my strength; it was only when I went to Europe to make my debut in the Netherlands Opera, that I started with Cleopatra in Julius Caesar and that got the ball rolling in the baroque direction, and that’s been wonderful, because it’s a very healthy way to sing. It’s a healthy orchestra size for a young voice—Handel writes beautifully for the voice, so it’s really … I can’t say baroque music or any Handel, or Gluck for that matter, is easy to sing. It’s difficult to sing. But it’s written well for the voice, so if you study it, and you get it right, then you’re not doing any damage at all, it’s not tough on the voice.

Melick: It’s interesting hearing you talk about how young you were when you got that first big part, and being 18 in a business where people talk about just entering your mature singing years when you’re in your early thirties, maybe.

De Niese: I know, it’s a little bit like I’m that guy from The Truman Show. I’m growing up sort of in the public perspective, which you have to take responsibility for. I understand that, and I try to … I think nobody’s harder on me than me, in a sense? As an artist, you’re always pushing yourself to keep growing, to keep learning, to keep maturing, to be patient. In so many different ways you’re trying to do better than your best. It’s a growth process. Right now, my voice is changing so much, it’s growing, and I feel like I’m sort on a moving train.

Melick: The quality of it is changing, the range…?

De Niese: It’s coming into its own … the range, well the range is maybe expanding, finding more different levels of comfort, and that’s a wonderful thing to be a part of. It can be a little scary at times, but it’s not scary in a sort of negative way, it’s sort of scary in a “Wow, that’s amazing” way. You feel like you know your instrument, and then it’s moving, it’s changing. And that’s partially because I started at such a young age as well. I feel like I know my voice already, but it’s still in a state of growth.

Melick: Do you enjoy ornamentation? Do you do your own when you’re singing something from the baroque period?

De Niese: Yes, I do. It depends on the conductor I’m working with. It’s a collaborative thing, and you have to feel it out based on who you’re working with. There are some conductors who prefer to send you the ornaments ahead of time. And then others say, “Show me what you’ve got.” And then that’s the time when you can really take creative control, in a sense, and find things or colors that suit your voice. Ornamentation is wonderful, because you get to create something musical to go with your emotional value, or the text of what you’re saying, and what you want to say with that text. So that’s a very exciting thing. For example, in Julius Caesar, when I sang Cleopatra in 2005 with Bill Christie (see a clip below), I wrote most of those ornaments myself. And Bill was very happy with them, and he trusted me, and he was fantastic about fine-tuning, and finishing touches, and taking things out if they didn’t fit the perfect tone of a particular phrase. It was wonderful, that’s a great experience.

Melick: So it sounds as if it started with you.

De Niese: Yes, for example when I did my album as well, I wrote the ornaments for my album. You always work with coaches, and then somebody gives you an idea, and then you take it and then you expand on it. So it’s nothing is ever an entirely solitary experience. Because music is not a solitary thing, even if you play with a pianist, you’re collaborating, you’re exchanging musical ideas, and musical impulses and things, and you’re feeding off each other. So that’s the joy of it. If you were singing and playing, and you did something entirely on your own, maybe that would become stale after a while. So that’s one of the other joys of doing Handel, is that every time you look at something it can be different. Every time I do Cleopatra, it will be different, there will be different ornaments, I will have found a different level of maturity to it, there will be something that will change: the production, the conductor, the colors of the instruments. And that always keeps it fresh and new.

Melick: Do you listen to recordings when you’re learning a new part?

De Niese: I listen to a recording if I find one, if I come across one, or if I want to get an idea of what a piece sounds like as a whole, I might grab a recording off of iTunes, and take a listen. I don’t use a recording to learn a part, or I don’t sort of listen over and over and over again, because sometimes that person’s interpretation can become ingrained in your ear’s memory, and it’s not that I don’t want to do their interpretation, but it’s important to leave a little room for your own artistic statement to come out. So I like, once I’ve heard something, to move away from it then.

Melick: There are some singers who say either you have to listen to all of the recordings of a piece, or none of them.

De Niese: Really.

Melick: Because some parts have been recorded so many times, and that way at least you know what’s out there, and you’re not relying on any single recording.

De Niese: Yeah. Once I was listening to something, I can’t remember what it was, it might have been a Brahms Requiem. It has that very difficult soprano part that comes halfway through the piece. And I just punched it in on iTunes, and before I settled on a recording, I just listened to various different singers doing the same part, just 30 seconds, to get a little sample, a sense of the color. That’s kind of fun. It depends what you can get your hands on. You know, with classical music sometimes stores don’t always have everything, because they’re old recordings, because they haven’t been reissued, because they ran out of stock. As a traveling artist, you can often want to get your hands on something, and then find that they don’t have it there, or they’re not going to get it for another four weeks, and you’ll be gone by then. We do our best to keep horizons as broad as possible—and keep learning, and you can learn from the past, really. Sometimes I … I remember once killing myself trying to sing a phrase in one breath, and thinking, no, I can’t break this phrase up because I shouldn’t, and I wouldn’t want to stop the text, and the breath would be distracting. And then I listened to all these old recordings, and everybody just breathed! A great teacher said to me, breathing can be a very expressive tool, and if you need to breathe, breathe. Because breathing is a part of singing. That was fantastic—had I not listened to these other recordings, I might not have known that.

Melick: You said recently in Opera News that your all-time favorite singer is Kiri Te Kanawa. When did you first hear her? Do you have a favorite one or two things of hers?

De Niese: As an artist I just adore her. She’s got one of the most beautiful voices that I’ve ever heard in my life, in my existence on earth, in the universe! It was wonderful to have her as a role model when I was a young girl in Australia, which is where I was born. Because she was also from the southern hemisphere, and came from a mixed background, like I am. And that was a real inspiration to me, because I saw her, and what she was doing with her career and thought, if she can do it, I’d love to do it, and I want to give it a shot. And I was 8 or 9 at the time. I remember very clearly thinking, I remember seeing her do a performance in Australia, and thinking, one day I can do that too. It was a total dream to meet her, and have a chance to work with her this past summer. And she is in every sense of the word, divine, and an incredibly wonderful teacher as well. That is an incredible gift in and of itself, I was so inspired by her.

Melick: Your Susanna that you have coming up at the Lyric Opera of Chicago about a year from now—is that your first shot at that role in a major house?

De Niese: It’s my second in America; this coming fall, in September, I will sing Susanna at the Met in Nozze. It’s in the Jonathan Miller production in which I made my debut as Barbarina ten years ago. So that will also be fantastic. I have a very special relationship with Chicago. Because of having done my very first Poppea there at the Opera Theater in 2004, and then also coming back to make my debut at the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2007, which was the American debut of this production of Julius Caesar by David McVicar, which is an incredibly important production in my life, a milestone in my career. And to have the chance to bring that to America, and to debut at the Lyric at the same time, in that role, in something that was so important to me—so pivotal in my life—was a huge defining moment for me. To bring that to an American audience, to my home, my homeland. It was very emotional and very special for me, so I am looking to going back to the Lyric for Susanna, which is a favorite role.

Melick: One of the nice things about your having reached the point in your career that you have, now, is that you actually get to perform—the percentage of time you get to spend in the United States is higher than a typical singer in her twenties, which is often almost 100 percent in Europe, and they never get to be home, and they usually have to wait until much later before they can spend any time home in the U.S. So it’s great that you get to be here so much.

De Niese: Yeah, I’m really pleased about it—I’m a big family girl as well.

Melick: Yes, it’s not a minor point to be able to see your family. What sort of non-classical music do you enjoy? Either listening or performing?

De Niese: There are other kinds of genres that I perform from time to time, but it might be as an encore or something like that. I listen to all different kinds of music, and I think it’s important to keep your palate cultivated on every side. And music is … it’s such a great time for music. But I say that every year! Because I think that as long as creative people are having a chance to perform, to share music with people, to grow as artists, bit it in the pop world, bit in the jazz world, be it in the classical world, or ethnic music, whatever it may be—or country music!—there are always chances for people to come into the field and to grow and mature as artists. And fans are incredibly important. People who love music—not people who do it themselves, but they love music—that’s so much an important thing to me, especially because I feel very connected to the public when I perform. I find that connection imperative for a great evening. And when that energy is there, and that support and that good vibration is there, it just makes everything so magical. It’s the magic of a live performance, and you can’t capture that. You can’t even touch it, but it’s something you feel when you are there. It’s a two-way street, it’s what will take me back to the stage probably until I am 80 years old, and they’re trying to kick me off the stage.

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SundayArts is made possible in part by First Republic Bank and by the Rubin Museum of Art. Funding for SundayArts is also made possible by Rosalind P. Walter, The Paul and Irma Milstein Foundation, The Philip & Janice Levin Foundation, Elise Jaffe and Jeffrey Brown, Jody and John Arnhold, and The Lemberg Foundation. This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Additional funding provided by members of THIRTEEN.
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