The Triumphant Non-Return of Danielle de Niese
IT'S NOT AS IF THE GIRL has been hiding. Danielle de Niese has sung at the Metropolitan Opera since 1998, when — as the youngest singer ever admitted into the company’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program — she made her debut at the age of 19 in Jonathan Miller’s much-loved staging of Le nozze di Figaro. Back then, Bryn Terfel as Figaro improvised a now-famous kick to her rear end. It seemed to telegraph a message she didn’t need; de Niese was already a disciplined performer. At 15 she had starred in a Los Angeles Opera production for teenagers, and she won an Emmy Award the following year for hosting a television series for young performers. In her 20s she went on to sing principal roles in Paris, Zurich, the Netherlands, Chicago, Santa Fe and a landmark Cleopatra in Handel’s Giulio Cesare at Glyndebourne. Her recently released album of Mozart arias is her second on a major label. So why did 2009 suddenly become the year of Danielle de Niese?
Was it her looks? They certainly don’t hurt. Media coverage of de Niese is everywhere, and her name rarely appears without the word “beautiful” nearby. In an era when movie-star looks are almost commonplace among sopranos — Anna Netrebko, Elina Garanca and Karita Mattila come to mind — de Niese’s exoticism makes her stand out, and it was widely showcased in a television broadcast of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice at the Met last season. Singing Euridice opposite Stephanie Blythe’s Orfeo, she was clad in an ethereal, figure-revealing gown that seemed like a clinging cloud, and her darkly expressive eyes were alive with love and bewilderment. Small wonder that Orfeo couldn’t resist looking back at her.
Offstage, de Niese is indeed radiant. But more than glamour, she radiates limitless, buoyant energy that matches the vibrant brightness of her voice and makes her seem even younger than she is. Sweeping into the Met press office for her Classical TV interview, she had the posture and presence of a star but the youthful exuberance of a high school pep squad. And she immediately broke a strict rule in the diva handbook, apologizing for being late and chattering cordially from the first moment despite circumstances beyond her control: collective opening week tension and construction chaos from the billion-dollar renovation of the Lincoln Center campus. Even international politics had gotten into the act, with the United Nations General Assembly bringing Manhattan traffic (and de Niese’s driver) to a halt. As we settled into the press lounge, buzz from opening night’s controversial Tosca hung in the air, but press for Nozze was far more positive and a glowing profile of de Niese in the New York Times Magazine had just hit the newsstands. She shut off her cell phone — that call from Donna Karan would just have to wait. I took this as an omen and decided to get the beauty questions out of the way quickly. What is it like always to be “beautiful Danielle de Niese” rather than lyric soprano Danielle de Niese? Was this pushing her into exotic or glamorous roles she might not want? Was it a burden?
“I don’t really have time to think about looks very much,” she says. “I have enough other expectations of myself artistically. Look, I’m not going to lie. I like fashion. I love shoes! And I’ve always enjoyed dressing well, ever since I was a kid; it’s just my thing. But people ask me if it’s a problem, and I have to say it would be kind of self-indulgent to complain about being praised for the way you look — there are so many heavier problems. And to be fair to writers and critics, they talk about my voice, too.
“When we perform,” she continues, “we use our bodies. We’re not hidden beneath a black curtain. Body language, how you express yourself physically, that’s part of your performance. But offstage, I don’t feel it’s right to dress down or dress in a way that doesn’t reflect how I feel, just to prove that my beauty is on the inside rather than the outside. I know that — my sense of self comes from the inside. I’m not going to put a sheet over my head.”
But if she’s not covering it with a sheet, she is keeping it level — perhaps thanks to her conservatory training from the Colburn School in Los Angeles as well as the professional experience under her belt. “Offers come in for all singers all the time. They’re tempting, but whether it’s the right thing for you is a different question,” and de Niese is very serious about pacing her vocal development for the long haul. “One producer offered me Aida when I was 21 just because he thought I looked perfect for the role,” she says. “Yeah, right? What if it all fell to smithereens? I want to be singing 40 years from now, not mess it up,” she says. “I have developed a real relationship with Cleopatra — I’ve done it in four different productions in my short life. That’s a lot for me, and I think people really like to see me perform it.” But despite praise for her way with Handel’s vocal lines, she hasn’t yet charged into the bel canto repertoire. “I haven’t taken Donizetti offers yet, for example. I want to wait until I’m ready. It all goes back to vocal growth; at this point in my life, the instrument doesn’t feel the same from month to month — sometimes from week to week!”
But when it comes to Mozart, de Niese has felt both a passionate affinity and a vocal ease since her teens. “The Mozart thing I don’t know how to describe,” she says. “There are certain composers that, when you sing them, you feel like you’re not actually separated from the music, that it’s in you. Mozart has always been that way for me, and I just knew that his music fit my voice. People talk about Mozart style, but I’ve never had to think about singing in a Mozartean way. I don’t want to pull back my voice... I’m thrilled to let a bit more out, actually.” For a moment de Niese is silent, though her unstoppable energy seems to hang in the air and her eyes tear up a bit. “I marvel at his genius all the time,” she says. “I read the Beaumarchais plays in French class when I was 17…I was always looking for ways to bring Mozart into my life. I can’t believe I have the opportunity to sing this music. It’s like music that was written for God Himself.”
In the Met’s La Nozze di Figaro she returns to a production in which she sang the smallest solo role, Barbarina, in 1998. But now, as Susanna, she essays the longest role in the opera, and one of the most strenuous in the standard repertoire. Her voice’s vibrant energy, bright gleam and fleet accuracy are practically tailored to the role; it will be interesting to see if the flowing legato and elegantly floating sustained notes required of the smaller, more mature role of the Countess will come later on. “Being in this production is absolutely phenomenal,” she says. “I’m still coming down from the premiere. It’s an amazing production. I went to London to visit Jonathan Miller and talk about it — it was so lovely to discuss the staging and remember our experiences. Of course, coming back to the Met is always wonderful, it’s like a home to me. But this production brings especially profound feelings because it was my debut production — it’s sentimental for me in a way the others aren’t.”
After another of those highly charged silences, de Niese recounts what might be called a backstage anecdote. “You know, when you’re backstage ready for your cue, they call you five to seven minutes before you’re due, and I’ve never been comfortable waiting in the wings that long. I usually do better getting to the wings just in time and going on. But in 1998, when I was Barbarina, I used to want to be there just to listen to the music, and to watch Bryn [Terfel] and Cecilia [Bartoli] onstage — two of the biggest opera stars in the world. They’re so brilliant. I used to leave once they started interacting with each other, because sometimes a person in the wings can be a distraction for a performer. But it was such a privilege. And now…”
And now Danielle de Niese is an ascendant Susanna, showing the world how it’s done.
Cultural reporter and critic Michael Clive lives in the Litchfield hills of Connecticut.