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Danielle de Niese

Hugh Canning

When Danielle de Niese appeared as an all-singing and all-dancing Cleopatra in David McVicar's staging of Giulio Cesare at Glyndebourne in 2005, she created the biggest ‘star-is-born' sensation the Sussex festival has experienced since the new theatre was unveiled in 1994. Although she was only 25 at the time-and she had been a late replacement for Rosemary Joshua, who had to pull out for health reasons-she already had a career of ten years behind her, including her debut at the Metropolitan Opera as Barbarina in Figaro at 19, and two runs of Cleopatra at the Netherlands Opera and the Palais Garnier in Paris. So her success at Glyndebourne was founded on substantial experience.

danielle de nieseWhen we met last November, the day after a performance of the McVicar Giulio Cesare at Chicago's Lyric Opera, she rattled off a breathless account of her short but eventful curriculum vitae. ‘I was born in Australia, but my parents are from Sri Lanka. They met in Australia, because when the British left Sri Lanka in the '60s, the national language changed to Tamil and my parents' mother-tongue is English. They'd grown up with the Commonwealth so I suppose they felt quite displaced after independence. The natural movement was to go to London, Canada or Australia. So that's how I was born there. We moved to America when I was ten and my brother was eight and we grew up in Los Angeles.'

Meeting de Niese is like coming face to face with a whirlwind of energy, which may explain the histrionic impact of her stage performances-and she certainly has a way with words and a remarkable recall of detail. Obviously a born performer, she tells me she started singing at six, taking voice lessons at eight-and-a-half and showing off her vocal talent-‘things like "With verdure clad" from The Creation and Gounod's "Ave Maria"'-by the tender age of nine. Six years later she made her debut with Los Angeles Opera, three years before going to music school.

‘I went to Mannes College of Music and in my first year there I did the auditions. They were doing The Marriage of Figaro and when the cast-list went up, my name was next to Susanna. I was not expecting that, and nobody else was either. Actually, they patted me on the back and said I should and go check with the office because they didn't think it was possible that a freshman would get a part like Susanna. Anyway, I did that production, and Peter Russell, head of the young artists programme at the Met, came to see it.'

So, in her first year at Mannes, she found herself auditioning for not only the Met's young artists programme, but also the role of Barbarina in a new production of Le nozze di Figaro to be directed by Jonathan Miller, conducted by James Levine and starring Cecilia Bartoli, Bryn Terfel and Renée Fleming. ‘A lot of people get into the programme via the National Council Competition, but I was too young to do that competition. I remember calling my agent from a payphone during a break at college and I asked about the training programme and he said, "Well, they are really interested in you for Barbarina but they don't know whether you are ready for the young artists programme," which both of us found hilarious. I was ready to go on stage at the Met, but not for the programme! But I got the part. It was incredible, a dream come true. It was very competitive, too, because every singer under 35 wanted to be in that show. Before it opened, it was already being called a "dream-team" cast. And working with Jonathan Miller! I love him!'

At Mannes, de Niese also sang for Peter de Caluwe, then casting director of the Netherlands Opera, who heard her audition piece, Cleopatra's ‘Piangerò la sorte mia', and presciently engaged her for the second cast of the Giulio Cesare he was planning for Amsterdam in 2001 (I saw both casts, and even though de Niese's voice was small and a bit raw, her stage persona was dynamite and she easily outshone Christine Schäfer, who sang Cleopatra on the opening night).

Between leaving Mannes and appearing as Barbarina at the Met, de Niese had spent a summer in Italy learning Italian; and after a brief spell with the Met's young artists programme, she spent a year in Paris to learn French. In addition to her accomplishments as a singer and (trained) dancer, she is an excellent linguist. ‘I'm sort of proud of that,' she says, ‘because I put in so much work on languages and a lot of singers I know just don't do that. I don't know about you, but I can usually tell when a singer speaks the language or doesn't.'

There is a disarming brusqueness about de Niese's upfront style, which almost verges on indiscretion. You can certainly imagine some of her colleagues wrinkling their noses on reading such finger-wagging admonitions, but she clearly feels strongly about languages, words and communication.

‘I was supposed to study German in Vienna and I did go there, but my trip got cut short because I was asked to be in a movie, Hannibal [a sequel to the The Silence of the Lambs]. There's a pivotal scene where Hannibal goes to the opera, so I was also on screen and they had a big close-up of me, which was very cool, and I also recorded the soundtrack. One of the most critically acclaimed things in the movie was the music. It was an original piece written by Hans Zimmer and Patrick Casssidy called ‘Vide cor meum', based on Dante's ‘La vita nuova'. At the time, I didn't tell anybody I had done it, and my colleagues, when they went to see it, said, "Oh, my God, that's Danielle de Niese!". I didn't want to go around saying, "I was in a movie!".' Clearly, the Hollywood studios recognized the photogenic qualities which make de Niese the Halle Berry of opera, and one can easily imagine a film career for this most watchable singer if she ever lost her voice.

Had she expected Cleopatra to become such a charmed role in her young career, I wondered? After she auditioned for Marc Minkowski, the conductor of both the Amsterdam staging and the Paris revival of Nicholas Hytner's production, the French conductor accepted her for both engagements. ‘It was a combination of Marc and the Paris Opéra, because someone had heard me on the Met programme and tried to get me earlier, but the Met-rightly-didn't let me go. That was a good thing. Paris gave me a choice of roles for my debut, between Cleopatra and Susanna, and I chose Cleopatra. I love Susanna, it's another of those roles that runs in my veins somehow, but for my debut I thought Cleopatra, having eight arias-although ‘Tu la mia stella sei' was cut-makes more of an impression, even though Susanna is a long role.'

In both the Dutch and French cities, the orchestra for Giulio Cesare was Minkowski's Musiciens du Louvre; at Glyndebourne, William Christie conducted the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. When McVicar's production transferred to Chicago Lyric Opera-a much larger house than anywhere she had previously sung Cleopatra-the company's orchestra played on modern instruments, so I asked de Niese if she approached the music differently.

‘Well, nobody's ever told me that my voice doesn't carry, so I sang pretty much the same way in Chicago as I did in Glyndebourne, Paris and Amsterdam, except of course modern instruments are half a step higher, which makes certain things difficult. Before Chicago I'd only ever sung Cleopatra with period instruments and my musculature was used to that, so it took a bit of time to get used to going from F to F sharp minor. Certain things I found a bit easier, particularly in the lower register and chest voice. I do feel the McVicar production has grown a lot, in nuance and detail, and David always comes back to revive it. He doesn't say, "this is the way we did it in 2005". Pat [Bardon] and I have completely reworked our roles, motivationally, but I felt very comfortable and I never had a balance problem in Chicago.'

Even more demanding, of course, in this production, is the physical energy required to execute Andrew George's choreographic routines while singing even seven of Cleopatra's eight arias. De Niese says that it's hard work, but worth it, and since it has already been enshrined and internationally acclaimed on DVD, the role has become a touchstone for her.

‘In some way, I knew that when I first sang it. Not that I thought to myself in 2001 "this is my part", but when you've had that connection with a role, it's like falling in love. When I first started working on Cleopatra, I did so much research, I read so many books and I came to understand a lot about the music. It just fitted, it felt like putting on an old shoe. What's amazing to me is that it has grown so much every time I've done it. Even from 2005 to 2006 at Glyndebourne-because I was the only principal returning to the cast-I felt the pressure to outdo what I had already done.'

The production was not originally planned with de Niese as Cleopatra, and yet it is almost impossible to imagine it without her; and it is hard to believe that her personality, and particularly her terpsichorean accomplishments, didn't play an important part in the final look of the show. ‘No, it was scheduled for Rosie [Joshua]. The very first day I showed up for rehearsal-I was a week late because I was a replacement and I was singing Tytania with Chicago Opera Theatre-I found out that David McVicar didn't really want me. He didn't know me and I suppose he thought, "I'm gonna have someone turning up late and I've never worked with her. I want someone else." But Bill Christie, who had worked with me, and Poul Moe [Glyndebourne's casting consultant], who had cast me as Cleopatra in Paris, told him, "You are gonna like this girl", so David took a chance. And when I met David, it was like, "Hi! Nice to meet you," and they had the whole of Cleopatra's first scene scheduled for rehearsal. They had set up three hours to block that one scene and in one hour we were done, because I was very quick. So David thought we could do more, and he sent Andrew George off and said, "I want ‘Tu la mia stella sei' to be a '20s, brawly, flapper aria". A lot of the time we'd be joking around, and then come up with the movement. The choreography evolved as we worked on the show and it turned into something that really suited the piece. He didn't turn "Se pietà" and "Piangerò" into dance routines.'

Perhaps inevitably, Cleopatra has become a calling-card for de Niese-earlier this year she sang a revival of Karl-Ernst and Ursel Herrmann's Netherlands Opera production in Brussels, but she was unavailable for repeat performances in Amsterdam and was replaced-ironically-by Rosemary Joshua. Her active repertory also includes Susanna and Despina, both of which she sang in Amsterdam's Mozart-Da Ponte trilogy last season, and she has already added another of Handel's tailor-made parts for Francesca Cuzzoni (the first Cleopatra and Rodelinda). ‘I sang Rodelinda in Toronto and it got nominated for an award. It was great not having to play a vixen-type again. You know, people like to see me in certain kinds of roles, so it was great to do a character who is a young mother.'

Handel clearly looms large in de Niese's professional life. Last year she sang Ginevra in a series of concert performances of Ariodante, one at the Barbican, and she has lots of plans. Her Covent Garden debut in the female title role of Acis and Galatea has just been announced for next season. She is back at Glyndebourne for a third reprise of Giulio Cesare in 2009, she will sing her first staged Semeles (she recorded the part with Pinchgut Opera in Sydney) in a revival of McVicar's production at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in 2010, and she will be reunited with the Scottish director and both of her Glyndebourne Cesares, Sarah Connolly and David Daniels, when she sings Poppea in McVicar's Brussels-Frankfurt-ENO staging of Agrippina at Barcelona's Teatre del Liceu in 2013.

It probably comes as no surprise that Handel is also the composer she has chosen for her debut solo album on Decca, released to coincide with her appearances as the other Poppea at Glyndebourne this summer. With such a wealth of arias to choose from, deciding on repertoire can't have been an easy task.

‘It took me about seven months to decide. I wanted two sides to my CD like they used to have in the LP days. I asked Decca if I could have two hours so I wouldn't have to leave stuff out. I wanted to pick only Handel's strongest melodies, but I also wanted to have things that were stimulating for the orchestra, so I didn't want to have just popular pieces that they've played a lot. I was looking for arias that had strong obbligato solos. I chose "Vo far guerra" [Armida's aria from Rinaldo] because I knew Beatrice Martin was going to play harpsichord and she's brilliant. The orchestra is Les Arts Florissants and Bill Christie is conducting, which is a real luxury for me as I don't think he has ever done a solo album for a singer. I jumped up and down when he said "Yes", and I would have perfectly understood if he had said "No". I've also chosen two arias from Semele-which two was very difficult, and the same goes for Cleopatra, but I settled on "Endless pleasure" and "Myself I shall adore". I didn't want to leave things out just because they are popular either, so that's why I've done "Lascia ch'io pianga"-it's beautiful, a gem. And I thought it would be interesting to do two different characters, Almirena and Armida, from the same opera [Rinaldo]. From Cesare I chose "Da tempeste" and "Piangerò", and it was tough leaving "V'adoro pupille" out.'

This month's assignment at Glyndebourne of the title role in Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea is another part she has sung to acclaim elsewhere-in Lyon with Christie and, last September, in a revival of Pierre Audi's Netherlands Opera production. At the time we met she didn't know what Robert Carsen's ideas for the piece in the Sussex house might be, but the role is another that seems to fit her voice and personality ideally. ‘Well, it's the first time I'll work with Robert and the first time I'll be going back to Glyndebourne not as Cleopatra, which I am looking forward to. I was supposed to go back in 2006 as Adele in Fledermaus but then they wanted me again as Cleopatra and I thought, maybe I could do both-but then again, the tessitura of the roles is so different and I'm not Wonder Woman.'

Glyndebourne audiences might disagree with her, of course. In box-office terms and media allure, if she's not Wonder Woman she's probably the next best thing.

This article appeared in the May 2008 issue.

Cabbells 2012 B & C
Opera Awards in association with OPERA Magazine