Interview: Danielle De Niese on her Royal Opera Debut, her Mozart disc and Glyndebourne

'The most important thing to understand is how music moves you. You need nothing for that except your own heart, your own ears and eyes, and your body and mind to be open to it.'

18 March 2009

Danielle De Niese (Photo © Lorenzo Aguis/Decca)American soprano Danielle De Niese's trajectory to stardom is the stuff of any singer's dreams. Blessed with exotic good looks - the result of mixed Sri Lankan and Dutch heritage – and a natural ability as actor and dancer to complement her voice, she is little short of a one-woman Gesamtkunstwerk.

A Met debut whilst still in her teens saw her share the stage as Barbarina in Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro with Bryn Terfel, Cecilia Bartoli and Renée Fleming, conducted by James Levine and directed by Jonathan Miller.

This was followed by further performances at the Met and Europe before her breakthrough appearance for audiences in the UK, Glyndebourne's 2005 staging of Handel's Giulio Cesare. Her all-singing, all-dancing Cleopatra helped make David McVicar's outrageously entertaining production one of the festival's biggest hits of recent years. With the first album of a contract with Decca under her belt, and a second – of Mozart – due out this year, she returns to Glyndebourne for a revival of Handel's masterpiece this summer, not just as a star attraction, but also as the newly-engaged fiancée of Gus Christie, the festival's executive chairman.

It's an impressive CV for a singer still in her twenties and she adds to it this month with her Royal Opera debut, singing Galatea in the second part of a double bill of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas and Handel's Acis and Galatea, directed by the Royal Ballet's in-house choreographer, Wayne McGregor. The production marks a rare collaboration between the Royal Ballet and the Royal Opera, in which, I suggest, the famously versatile De Niese must be in her element.  

'For me movement is a part of an interpretation. Because I've had some dance training, I am not particularly frightened of the thought of it; but it always has to be in the right context to really work, it can't just be done for the sake of it. So in this particular production Wayne has a whole team of dancers that are representing us as characters. I will do a bit of dancing in it, but it will be just at the very end.

'Galatea is always in movement, she's always in motion, and there's an element of body language that's crucial to her being. She's this person who's in between being mortal and immortal, she has both qualities. She's very at one with nature and at the same time she has this feeling that she's not of this world, that she's not of earthly things yet she's earthly. So that's really fun to play, because there's something spiritual about her, she's very organic and rooted.'

(Photo © Lorenzo Aguis/Decca)De Niese is obviously enjoying working with McGregor, whom she describes as 'a wonderful human being'. She goes on to explain that 'he's a bit like nature, he's very calm and easy-going and exciting all at the same time. He's a great worker, he's patient, he's very peaceful and he's very human.' De Niese's enthusiasm is infectious and she illustrates her points with elaborate and elegant hand gestures. It comes as no surprise that, similarly to the famous Glyndebourne Giulio Cesare, she enjoys being part of the process of building a production. 'Some directors will have mapped out the whole show, others will take everything out of what they have in the space, who they have working for them and what comes to them in the moment. Here we have a bit of both. For example, Wayne will come back the day after a rehearsal with some new ideas and, having let a scene sit and simmer for a while, puts them on the table; we sit and develop them, let them grow, evolve and change. It's a process that allows things to fly a bit; we see what happens, and then harness it and fine tune it.'

She hopes that this atmosphere of creativity will spill into the actual performances. 'Even in choreography, which is designed by definition, one can still breathe and move within the structure. Handel's like that too, it's freedom within this form. You have form in Baroque music that's more structured than your Romantic music: aria, aria, aria; recitative, recitative, recitative; da capo, da capo, da capo. Yet within that you have all this freedom to stop, to pause, to breathe, to think, to recreate ornaments to reinvent them. It's nice, it's good for the piece. And I think it really lends itself to that sort of creative combination of movement, thought, song and text.'

Has she managed to catch a glimpse of the Dido and Aeneas which forms the first half of the double bill?

'I haven't seen a single thing of Dido, we've been rehearsing at different times so I'm sure it must be quite crazy for the production team! My dear, dear friend Sarah Connolly is singing Dido so I can't wait to see it.' Connolly and De Niese are reunited, too, for the Glyndebourne Giulio Cesare revival. 'We're going to be shuttling back and forth,' she explains, 'performing Dido and Galatea here and then rehearsing Giulio Cesare and Cleopatra at Glyndebourne.'

Giulio Cesare is being revived by David McVicar himself, along with the original production's choreographer, Andrew George. With such a creative team, it would seem unlikely that audiences will be treated to a straightforward re-run of the 2005 show, now immortalised on DVD.

'They have a structure,' De Niese tells me, 'but they don't make it like an old template. They really re-work things and breathe life into it as if it was a new piece, and I love that about them. I remember doing it for the third time in Chicago and it was like a different production. David really stressed to the returning members: "Don't go on auto-pilot and don't do what you did last time. We don't want to think about that, we want to think about now and what this piece means now!" They're also really dear friends,' she smiles. 'I love it when I get on with directors. Once you form that bond, then it goes deeper than being merely professional.'

(Photo © Lorenzo Aguis/Decca)As well as Cleopatra, De Niese has sung the title role in Monteverdi's Coronation of Poppea in the UK, at last year's Glyndeborne Festival. Galatea, I suggest, is a very different creature from those two. 'My job is to play different characters. A lot of people who have seen me as Cleopatra and Poppea – which are the two main things I've done here in the UK – they assume that is either (a) my personality, or (b) that that's all I can do. They then ask how I will face the challenges of playing another role. But, I've played Rodelinda, I've played Semele, I've done L'enfant et les sortilèges where I played a boy, so I like the idea of pushing myself and the idea of not being boxed in. This is especially the case dramatically, because the story and the nitty-gritty is like your meat to chomp on when you work on a piece. For me it's always really important to make sure I have a nice, complex, interesting character and that I work different muscles.

'It was great because when I did Rodelinda – and I wish I could do it again – I loved the challenge of playing a young mother. It was so different from my other characters. I can even remember my manager coming to me and saying "I didn't know whether I could believe you as a young mother." But it worked; it was amazing. He was so impressed, and that was a huge thing for me: to go into the skin of someone that I couldn't relate to – because I don't have children – and channel different maternal instincts through my mother, through my relationship with her. For me that's a huge element of this job, or rather this career, this art. You have to cultivate yourself and you have to challenge yourself. So for me, yes, Galatea is like a different arrow that I'm pulling out' – she gestures to an imaginary quiver behind her back – 'I think that's good.'

She is thrilled, it seems, by the transformation that her costumes will effect in her, too. 'I'm wearing a blonde wig as Galatea – a really, really big blonde wig. I'll look so starkly different. I'm wearing flats, too. I'm very much a person of earth, of nature. She's a wild spirit and she has a femininity to her, a grace that's young, that's innocent, beautiful and pure, and real; it's very real - this wig is crazy! It's all piled up like this,' she enthuses as fluid, dancerly gestures create an imaginary coiffure in the space above her head. Putting her character in context, she continues: 'There's quite a modern edge to this piece. We're not going for friendly woods and rustic nymphs and everybody frolicking, we're going for a very realistic, modern yet timeless and slightly edgy look to the production. I think it's going to be great!'

The conversation moves on to De Niese's burgeoning career as a recording artist. Her first disc for Decca, Handel Arias, was released in 2008, going on to top the iTunes classical chart and cementing her already formidable reputation as an exponent of that composer's works. Her second disc, due out on Decca later this year, returns to her first love: Mozart.

'Mozart to me is the second step in my recording career, but the first step in my musical life. So this is like coming back to the beginning for me. I made my debut in Amsterdam with Cleopatra in 2001 and that's what started the Baroque train. This Early music has been wonderful thing for me to sing: it's healthy for the voice and I've learnt so much; I will always want to sing those roles. So with coming back to Mozart, it's like the ying and yang. It's not like I'm graduating to Mozart, I'm just changing to the other side of what my voice does.

'The Mozart album, just like the Handel, has been painstakingly difficult to programme, because there were so many wonderful things I wanted to do and just not enough sides to incorporate everything. I'm really proud of the programme, though, and it's an interesting selection. I didn't really realise, but a lot have people have told me that it's not your average, run-of-the-mill Mozart programme, that there are really not so many "famous" pieces on it. For example, I picked one aria called "O temerario Arbace": it's a concert aria, K.79, and he wrote it when he was ten! It knocks your socks off. It's so mature.

'I tend to have connections too with the things I do on these discs, so I'm including the alternate Susanna aria "Al desio di chi t'adora", which is what I sang in all my auditions for the Met's Young Artists programme. I'm singing Despina, I'm singing Ilia's entire opening scene [from Idomeneo]: I knew that if I ever did a Mozart disc I would have to include that. And I love Ilia, I can't wait to perform it. There's Lucio Silla, "Laudate Dominum" from the Vesprae solennes and another huge concert aria, "Bella (Photo © Lorenzo Aguis/Decca)mia fiamma" [K.528].'

The disc also reunites De Niese with Bryn Terfel, who was singing Figaro when she made her Met debut as Barbarina a decade ago. 'I feel so honoured,' she exclaims. 'He asked me once to do a tour of Canada with him and I can remember being absolutely distraught when the Met wouldn't let me go because I was still on the Young Artists programme. So now, finally, back we are to do this duet which was such fun.'

Providing accompaniment is the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under conductor Sir Charles Mackerras, whose name she intones quietly with a mixture of awe and affection. 'He is, to me, one of the guiding lights in terms of Mozart over the years. He's really defined Mozart in a very special, authoritative way. Whereas in the Handel I did a lot of my own ornaments, for this Mozart I left myself in Sir Charles' hands completely, in terms of the proportion of ornamentation one should include. So the ornaments are very minimal but very beautiful. I think it's exactly right for the music and for the personality and the tone that I wanted to achieve with each aria. So that was a real thrill. I love him!'

As her enthusiasm brims over again, she worries: 'You're going to walk out of here thinking "My God, she just loves everybody!"' Despite her success, however, she emphasises how lucky she is to work with fellow artists who share and nurture her passion. As such, the recording of her Mozart album sounds like a highlight of her career to date.

'It was a really big moment for me, because my voice is growing right now and when I was doing that disc I was also going through a huge growth-spurt. Apart from anything else, it's a very emotional experience to go and sing all that Mozart. I was in seventh heaven, I was so happy. I came out of the recording feeling like I'd climbed Mount Everest, I just felt very good about it. Everyone was just so enthusiastic and the orchestra was so happy, and it was a great experience. No-one was on autopilot, we went in and had a great time and everyone put genuine effort into the making of it.'

Although never absent from her repertoire, Mozart is beginning to feature more and more in her schedule. 'I'm singing Susanna at the Met this coming season, 2009-10, and then again at the Chicago Lyric, Despina at the Met again in a couple of years time. I love, I mean really lurve, Mozart,' she drawls, investing the word the with almost inappropriate passion. 'It's what life is about. I don't think I have any Mozart scheduled here. I'm doing other things, though.' I press for more but she she studiously avoids specifics: 'Well, quite a few things… my next step vocally is adding Donizetti into this mix of Mozart and Handel. But carefully. So I'm adding things like Adina in L'elisir d'amore and Norina in Don Pasquale.'  

It's clear that De Niese is planning her repertory carefully. I ask, however, if there are any roles she has a particular desire to sing in the future.

'Every time someone asks me, a voice in my head tells me "Don't say it!" But I can't help but want to respond honestly and the role I know I want to do and let it envelope me is Massenet's Manon. I love that role. I sang Poussette at the Met, and that's when the bug bit me. She's so complex, and it must be very difficult to manage all the facets of her character well. It's not just a vocal challenge, then, but a dramatic challenge, too, and I'd have to see if I can do both. I've had offers to do it, because people have read about it in the press. I've said no, because I want to know I'm ready and then schedule it, rather than project that I'll be ready in five years.'

(Photo © Lorenzo Aguis/Decca)She laughs when she recounts that she was offered Aida at the beginning of her twenties, 'because I looked the part'. But does she see herself venturing further into the bigger Italian repertoire?  'Well, I've done Nanetta in Falstaff, which is a beautiful thing and the lyricism of Verdi really suits me. I've also done Lauretta in Gianni Schicchi, so I feel like I understand the style. At some point I will look at the other roles, but for now I wouldn't sing more than Musetta [in La bohème] and Lauretta or Nanetta. At some point, maybe in ten years, maybe sooner; it depends on how the voice grows.

'People in the business who know me, they know better than to make unrealistic offers regarding repertoire, because they know I don't want to be a flash in the pan, they know how in love I've been with singing since I was I child. I started so young because I wanted to and because I loved it. They know that, and they know that I have a good team of people around me, keeping an eye out for me and making sure that crazy operas don't even land on my desk. So most of the houses I work for won't put Aida in front of me these days, because they also want to support me and do what's right for my voice. Still, you can't imagine how many people say "Oh, you should do Carmen". I'd love to do Carmen one day but, the problem is I'm not a mezzo!'

De Niese's optimism extends to a positive view of the world of classical music and its prospects during the recession. 'Classical music is still doing really well; people want to go and see it. These opera broadcasts at the movies are doing really well and getting opera out to more people, so it's a matter of getting young dynamic people out there.' Does she see herself as a shot in the arm for the classical musical world, as she's often portrayed, and an ambassador for the youth of the world? 'I see myself as a natural flag-bearer for classical music to the youth because I have done out-reach since I was twelve years old. I started so young so I feel an obligation to do it. It's not a chore, though, it's something that comes so naturally to me. That's why I started at a young age, because I knew going out there and singing for my peers would really change their impressions of what it's like to be a classical singer. And once the stereotype is broken or the misconceived ideas are changed then one can be really open.

'It's not about preaching to people to get them to convert to classical music. I think it's really important to respect all kinds of music and I have profound respect and appreciation for a lot of other types of music that are not classical. When I set out to talk to kids, I don't tell them they have to love classical music and they've got to love what I do. It's just about opening their minds to the possibility that there are things in classical music that they can relate to, that they can appreciate. You don't need a degree to love classical music, it's not something that one must have a sophisticated musical taste to appreciate. Granted, having a sophisticated musical experience can give you deeper levels of understanding about the music, but the most important thing to understand is how it moves you. You need nothing for that except your own heart, your own ears and eyes, and your body and mind to be open to it.'

By Hugo Shirley

Dido and Aeneas / Acis and Galatea opens at the Royal Opera House on 31 March.

BBC 4 TV will broadcast Acis and Galatea on Friday 15 May and Dido and Aeneas on Friday 22 May; BBC radio 3 will broadcast Dido and Aeneas and Acis and Galatea on Saturday 20 June

Giulio Cesare opens at Glyndebourne on 22 May.

Photos © Lorenzo Aguis/Decca

Join the debate: if you have any comments on this or any of our articles, visit our forum