BWW Interview Part 1: Danielle de Niese Is Making a Difference

Of opera star Danielle de Niese, The New York Times said hers was "a voice seductive enough to woo gods as well as mortals." In her present incarnation as Queen Partenope in Handel's delectable comedy Partenope at San Francisco Opera, the description could hardly be more fitting. However, de Niese as of late also has become known for her work with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) (http://www.rescue.org) and the educational programs it sponsors in Tanzania. I spoke to her about opera, in and out of Africa.

EM: Danielle, how's is Partenope going in San Francisco?

DdN: Really well. It's been a real treat to be out here. I'm very excited. I grew up in Los Angeles, a real California girl at heart, so it's nice to be here. Every few years I get to go out to the west coast so I'm thrilled to be back in San Francisco, such a great company. Partenope has been an amazing success, which I'm pleased about.

EM: Of course I saw you in Don Pasquale here at San Diego Opera two seasons ago, which was so much fun.

DdN: That's a great show, that Pasquale.

EM: Tell me about everything you've been doing.

DdN: Lots of really exciting things. The work at IRC is obviously a big highlight, because it's culminating in the big gala Freedom Award dinner on Nov. 6 in New York. That's going to be quite a big deal. I've been asked to sing and also give a speech. Short one, but it will have an impact, since I just returned less than a month ago from Tanzania, where I took my first mission trip for the IRC. Incredible trip. This dinner will be a test for me, too, to tell them in a short speech about my personal experience. What I've learned really was amazing. I had been to Africa before, but going with the IRC was a very special occasion.

EM: How did you become interested in and involved with the IRC?

DdN: In New York in February of this year while I was doing Enchanted Island at the Met, I met an IRC representative, who told me about the organization. I felt I could connect with their mission. I had heard some stories about the resettle kids and what life is like for them in a new country, sometimes with a new language, to integrate into these communities. I live in England - I was born in Australia, so I have a Commonwealth connection - as well as in the US. In both the US and the UK there's a huge debate, quite polarized, about immigration, border patrol, foreigners coming into the country and taking our jobs. I thought, given my multicultural background, that I fit somewhere firmly in the middle. I think the mission of the IRC to take people from harm to home is a very noble one, that the concept of resettling a refugee in another country to give them a chance to have a better life for themselves is an incredible, worthy initiative. Since I was singing and starring in a role at the Met right across the street, I thought, "Why don't we invite some kids to come to the opera?" I thought the kids would appreciate having an experience unlike any they'd had before.

EM: Were those kids all located in New York at that time?

DdN: Yes. Since opera is what I do, it made sense to me that the first point of connecting with the IRC and their story would be with my performance. Since I was twelve, I always sought to get my generation of kids exposed to and open to classical music, a viable art form alongside pop music, theater, jazz and other kinds of music. IRC loved the idea. I went to Peter Gelb and asked him whether he could support me in my bid with the Education Department to free up twenty tickets to get the kids in, which of course he did very willingly. I'm hugely grateful to him for that. Twenty children got a chance to come to one of my performances. I also organized a special backstage tour with special permission to go onto the stage. All of us holding hands together, I took the kids on stage, and they were all in awe of the size of the Met. I turned to them and said, "This is my view from the stage." They were gob smacked.

EM: I'm sure they must have been.

DdN: In between acts, at the intermission right after my diving scene with Domingo in the sea, I walked over in full costume and met the kids in List Hall. They got to play around with my costume and sea gear and were fascinated by the connection. It made the experience very real for them, very immediate. We hugged and took pictures, then I was back to being on stage in the opera. It was a memorable experience for them. I know they took a lot away from it. That's how my relationship with IRC was born.

EM: What happened then?

DdN: It was announced on July 16 in London that I would become an official IRC voice and taking my first mission trip to Tanzania the end of August. I met thirty people from the press there. I told them what I was going to do and why I was connected with the IRC. I also sang for them and mentioned that I could sing for the refugees in Tanzania. Of course they were probably thinking, "Could that be possible? Would that even be fathomable?" I said, "If it's workable I will do everything in my power to find a way. If we can't get a piano to the camp we can take a Doc with my iPod and I'll sing with that." I got a friend of mine to record the songs in England that we turned into MP3 files and sent to various IRC members to have backups on their iPhones and we took these tracks out there. This is one of the gifts of living in a technological times. Only in 2014 can you do something like that. We hooked up to a speaker literally in the middle of nowhere in Tanzania and music lived. In the refugee camp they'd been all prepared for my arrival and to welcome me. I sang in a hall that had windows over the bars like in a jail, and children were scaling the walls on the outside of this building to look in to see me sing. It was hugely moving for me.

EM: It sounds wonderful.

DdN: It was a trip I don't think I'll ever forget, eye-opening but very inspiring. We had two missions out there. One was to learn about the programs the IRC has in place to invest in the young children of Tanzania. It's called "Wekeza", which means "invest" in Swahili, and is designed to get children out of a habitual routine that is cross-generational - child labor - and get them in school. Tanzania is one of the poster children in terms of countries with a high level of child labor. I met a boy - you've seen him on the video. He was just heartbreaking, so happy to be back in school. As a result of getting helped by the IRC he was pulled out of child labor, and his father got a job at the school and didn't need for him to do child labor in order to increase family income. I totally cried when I saw the video. It brought back so many memories. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NCb60Y3xaCM&feature=youtu.be.

EM: The whole experience must have been so emotional for you.

DdN: It was. But I was there for a purpose, to bring joy and hope to these kids. I had to make sure I wouldn't get upset in front of them. That was tough - we saw some pretty difficult things. We also saw many wonderful things. So many kids have drive and zest for absorbing everything they possibly can. Another program is training kids from about sixteen to nineteen with trade skills. Part of the problem in poor countries is that even if you provide education for kids, if they have nothing to go forward with afterwards, they can get back into much more dangerous ways of making money. Providing them with trade skills equips them to start a small business, can get them actively engaged in ways of having income without resorting to degrading, demeaning, even violent, ways of providing income so they can live. The IRC are so committed to doing it not by force, but engaging with communities to bring them around to these concepts. That's why I'm so honored to be working with them. I did many speeches while I was out there, one in particular to thank the parents of the kids who are in the school. It takes a lot of patience and humility as a person who's grown up as a product of child labor, to break that pattern, to understand the importance of getting your child into school. Retraining parents about the idea that an education gives a child hope for a university and a better life than the immediate gratification of child labor could ever provide them. It's very hard to ask parents to make that leap of faith when they themselves grew up in child labor. Many people had tears in their eyes, because they knew that was true. It was very moving to see how many parents were committed to it.

EM: Tell me about the refugee camps.

DdN: The last remaining one, in Nyaragusu, has 53,000 refugees. The majority are Congolese and Burundian. Some have been there for over fifteen years. In the transient center, many people were meant to be there for three weeks and were two years waiting to get into the camp. They have lots of amazing programs set up inside the camp. There was a group of mentors and mentees. At the ripe old age of fourteen, these "older wives" teach young mentees seven to fourteen ways to ward off sexual violence and aggression in the camp, because rape and other violence are very common there. You hear stories - girls getting married, pregnant, dumped by their husbands, shamed by their families - and think, "That doesn't feel real." Yet there's a person sitting in front of you telling you that's what happened. It was just harrowing. Another program teaches parents how to raise babies and small infants, things we take for granted as given knowledge. I met grown fathers who told me, "I didn't realize I needed to hug and kiss my babies and engage with them. I just waited until they got old enough to talk to me." They were incredibly grateful for all of this. I saw such a level of strength and resilience among the refugees, a tremendous desire to take life in their hands, make the best of it, and try to find joy. I was given lots of requests as "Madame Ambasciatrice" to sing, to help life be better for them. I'm honored to be part of the IRC to give the message that we're there to help. I will happily go back in a heartbeat to do more work for them.

Next, Part 2: Balancing philanthropy with opera

Photo Credit:IRC

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