BWW Interview Part 2: Danielle de Niese, Out of Africa and Into Opera

EM: Danielle, how do you balance all of your work with IRC and opera?

DdN: In my life, I've always tried to get that balance right. Sometimes it's hard. When I got back from Tanzania on September 6th, I couldn't have been more removed from the world of Tanzania and on September 7th I was presenting in the Proms on television for the BBC. It was so surreal to try to piece all of that together. I flew back from Cairo Saturday night and on Sunday morning I was at the Royal Albert Hall back into my gowns and jewelry, all dolled up and sitting in front of the camera with six thousand people. I think that weekend summed up the dichotomy of my life, the yin yang and how I balance everything. I think I'm doing pretty well at it, I haven't cracked up yet. I somehow have always have had an inner desire to do things that go far beyond my own personal success. I've never felt my destination is just me being successful. I feel the absolute moral responsibility to do something to give back, something for humanity that's much bigger than myself. I wouldn't say I'm a deeply religious person, I'm not a staunch churchgoer, but I have a relationship with God and I feel that in some way even if sometimes I'm working too hard or stress myself to go and make trips for noble causes, it all seems the right answer, always the right thing to do, always rewarding, and therefore always works out and I will always be okay. I feel that kind of cosmic karma that it can't be the wrong thing to do, even if it's a bit tiring, because it's so right. Maybe that keeps my mind strong and able to handle it all.

EM: I really admire what you're doing. In seeing you perform, both live and on video, I find your energy staggering. All of a sudden now, coming out of Africa, you're in San Francisco singing Handel. That must be another interesting transition for you.

DdN: (Laughs) Yes, it really was, and actually it was really great to hit the stage again. I love performing, so if I'm off the stage too long, I get a little antsy. I love to dive into these characters and find the story line that makes people relate to them. Even in complicated characters, there's always something you can find that allows an audience to understand why a person's the way they are. I love that process. Working with a director is the thing that makes the blood go through my veins. It's what life is about for me. Discovering, learning, looking at things, examining and asking why, asking how, making sure every single thing I do on stage is for a reason and true to purpose. I hate the idea of doing something just because someone told me to - it also has to feel right, to feel natural, and I love doing that with a director. I've been very fortunate to work with all of the best directors, so I've never been asked to do something where I think, "This makes no sense." I've worked with people that are so collaborative, so willing to find the answers to things that make sense, that make it real and genuine. That's very integral to me as a performer, because if as a performer you don't believe in what you're doing, other people won't believe it either. Wanting it to be just so can be an arduous process for me, but I need to breathe the character into somebody. Maybe that's what people see as the energy in my interpretations, because I'm existing on the plane that is absolutely engaged in every single bone of my body. It's tiring, exhausting, but I love it. Having done now this performance for the refugees it just reiterated for me the power of a live performance, which can never be replaced by other things. There are many other wonderful ways to engage with the media, but a live performance is something tangible. That energy is something you have to be in the house to feel it.

EM: That's what opera is all about.

DdN: Absolutely. You can capture lots of wonderful things on BBC - you get a zoomed in camera perspective, you can feel a lot closer. But I think live theatre at the Met and the live HD broadcasts are both so integral. I hope, believe, that being instructed by one makes people want to experience the other. I think people who see the HD broadcasts and are not sure about opera go, "That was electrifying. I want to go see that in the theatre." And vice versa, many who have a ticket in the top balcony for the opera go into the live theatre and think, "That was amazing. I'd love to see that up close, I'm going to go to an HD broadcast and see what the camera has captured." They're different experiences.

EM: We all feel that way because we all love opera and want to keep it alive. Tell me about this Handel opera, Partenope.

DdN: I play Queen Partenope (Par-ten-o-pay), who in this production is sort of the doyenne of Parisian society of the 1920s. Surrealism, Dadaism, Man Ray. Nancy Cunard, the inspiration for the costuming and the general body language, was a Parisian socialite who wore very ornate African-inspired bangles from the wrist to the elbow, so her forearms full of bangles was very much her signature look, and it's very much Partenope, who is a complicated character. It's kind of a silly story, a love triangle that went really wrong. What I find interesting about this character, which we really drew out with (director) Christopher Alden, she's this gorgeous, alluring enigmatic, charismatic character, with all these suitors, who's been put on a pedestal by everybody around her. She has to be the Partenope that people see her to be. That slightly imprisons her, because she's not able to have true emotions, not meant to be somebody whose feelings get hurt. She's the top dog of society, so she's meant to be this impervious person who's the center of attention all the time. It's slightly disallowed her from engaging in any profound romantic relationships. She's had lovers and people she's anointed as her next love, but we don't know Partenope as a real person. I heard a funny quote from a movie, maybe Rita Hayworth, who says, "They go to sleep with a movie star but they wake up with me." Partenope's a bit like that, she would very much like to be more genuinely involved in a relationship but people adore her so much that she feels held to that pedestal she's put on. It means that when she's put through heartbreak in the show she feels it but can't publicly, she has to mask it, and that makes it very layered for people on stage and very interesting for me to play her that way, somebody who has a fragility that only the audience can really see - none of the people on stage can see it. That's interesting, the magic of how we can convey things in the theatre where the audience can become an integral player, because they're the only people she can truly confide in. It's fun as well, because I can do a Ginger Rogers number at the end, which was kind of choreographed on the spot, and I do a Marlene Dietrich top hat-tails chair number, sort of...

EM: Provocative.

DdN: Yes, a power play number as well, where I try to assert my dominance over everybody in the room. Those are fun, great challenges to bring to life. I've really enjoyed working with Chris Alden. I think he's one of the best directors around, and I hope we do a lot more together. I've enjoyed his company and energy and openness. I think San Francisco audiences have gone completely bananas for the show. We get such fabulous reactions.

EM: I'm not surprised.

DdN: All of my cast mates are hugely involved in the show, and do wacky things. We've got one singer doing yoga positions, a tap dancing number, lots to offer. I think it's really important when you're doing a Handel piece, that it be engaging. Handel done wrong can be very tedious, so it's wonderful with the audience clamoring for more at the end.

EM: And you're singing with the great David Daniels, too.

DdN: He's one of my favorite people to work with. We've sung together since 2002, done a lot of things together, know each other quite well and really enjoy working together. It's a great honor to be on stage with him. When I get to share stage time with him I'm happy.

EM: Any other favorite opera composers that you enjoy performing?

DdN: I've just started bringing in bel canto repertoire in the last couple of years. Donizetti's Pasquale you saw me do was my first Norina. I'd done Elisir the summer before but the last two or three years have been all about bringing Norina, Adina, into my repertory. I've felt very good and comfortable in those roles and really enjoy the challenges bel canto brings to my singing. I think it's made me a better singer. I've also done my first Anne Truelove in The Rake's Progress with Gianandrea Noseda, just a few months ago, a huge, wonderful step for me. I love Stravinsky, I love his story, the sort of haunting freedom of Baroque with angular music that you can make seem so natural. I really enjoyed singing Anne. It was a true departure role-wise for me. Quite a different character. I think it's really made me into a better performer. I love that about this métier, that every single thing you do with voice makes you into a better artist. Those are some of the things I really love, and also Mozart. I grew up as a Mozart singer. I made my European debut as Cleopatra but I had started out with Mozart. When I went into the Met with James Levine I went in as a Mozart singer. I did Barbarina there and I look forward to doing my first Pamina, first Ilia, maybe my first Elvira in a few years, which would be really exciting. She's another complicated character.

EM: One of the most complicated, I think. By the way, did you know I was a violinist at the Met with James Levine?

DdN: I didn't! James Levine has been a mentor for me, having taken me on at eighteen in the Young Artists program. He's a magical talent. He has a wizardry about him. Brilliant conductor, brilliant pianist, incredible coach, wonderful accompanist. I always thought he had the ability, by putting his faith in you, to make you able to do things you didn't think you could do better. You did your best, and then he'd say, "I know you can do this like this, try it like this." And somehow you can. That kind of magic sits within his being that will never cease to amaze me. Even if I never worked with him again for a hundred years, I will remember that about him.

EM: He was that way with the orchestra. Always trying to push and encourage us to be better. He made the Met Orchestra into one of the great ones.

DdN: Did I tell you about my BBC (http://youtu.be/XqLTe8h0-jo) video? We just launched the first music campaign they've ever done, at the same time on all channels around the world. It was like the BBC's answer to "We are the World" - a musical collaboration of the Beach Boys song "God Only Knows". (Sings) "God only knows what I'd be without you." I was the only classical soprano asked to record it. It was done with Stevie Wonder, Pharrell Williams, Emeli Sandé, Elton John, Chris Martin from Coldplay, Brian Wilson, of course, from the Beach Boys, Kylie Minogue, even One Direction, the pop band.

EM: What an amazing group.

DdN: It was amazing to have been asked to be a part of it, all contributing to this one message, which was that music is important. BBC is a wonderful channel that provides wonderful music all across the world in all genres. The campaign was aired on October 7th worldwide, at the same time. I've done a lot at the BBC, and I'm very proud to collaborate with them on numerous projects that present classical music to a mainstream audience. That's very much in line with what I'm trying to do in the world, and it makes me proud to be a multicultural American representing classical music. So I'm honored to be a part of it. The proceeds of the sales of the single will go to the Children in Need Foundation.

EM: Danielle, it was so great watching you at San Diego Opera, and I've had a blast talking to you today. It was just a delight, as I knew it would be. The great artist that you are, so young and so accomplished, with such a big heart. What you're doing is so important, from opera to the IRC and everything in between. Thank you so much. I hope to see you again in San Diego.

DdN: I really appreciate your saying that, Erica. I made a huge commitment in 2012 to San Diego Opera, and they know that I'm very loyal. If they call I will come.

EM: They will certainly appreciate hearing that. Have a wonderful time as the Queen!

DdN: Thanks so much, Erica.

Performances of Partenope run through Nov. 2 (http://sfopera.com/tickets/allproductions.aspx)

Photo Credit: Cory Weaver

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