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Music Arts
July 31, 2008

Denyce Graves holds on to her roots

By Janet Smith

American mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves lives in Paris and has sung on stages from Italy’s La Scala to Opera Hong Kong, but her heart remains in Washington, D.C. It’s the city where she was raised by a single mother in a poor neighbourhood, where she continues to draw support from family and friends, and where she’s currently shopping for another home.


Denyce Graves-2 Glamorous mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves has performed for everyone from the president to the pope. The singer, who appears at Festival Vancouver’s opening-night gala, says she’s never felt more confident in her abilities than she does right now.

It’s also a place where the impossibly glamorous opera star performs regularly—including several recitals at the White House. She’s sung everything from “The Lord’s Prayer” at the 9/11 memorial in the Washington National Cathedral to Gene Scheer’s “American Anthem” for George W. Bush’s second inauguration, in 2005. And on April 17 at Nationals Park, she appeared alongside renowned tenor Plácido Domingo at the Mass welcoming Pope Benedict XVI.

You can’t help but ask: does returning to Washington and performing in such regal halls as the presidential mansion make her feel like she’s made it? As if she needed any more assurance, it must drive home that she’s done it: she’s travelled from one side of the city to the other, a journey greater than the flight to any gig she’ll do overseas. But it says something about the acclaimed artist and the unwavering work ethic that got her to where she is that she doesn’t let herself think in those terms.

“I look at it as an engagement and a responsibility,” says Graves matter-of-factly, with a mixture of diva-worthy confidence and down-home candour. “I’m not able to take myself off the stage and look at myself from out there. I have a job to do, and that’s to do my best.

“My level of commitment is great and I always want to do the best job I can possibly do. I create a lot of pressure on myself, but I realize a great deal is also expected of myself. A lot of my friends say it’s difficult to be around me because I have to focus my time and energy on that.”

In a story that has become a part of opera lore, Graves was a high-school student training at the Duke Ellington School for the Performing Arts when she first discovered opera. A teacher gave her a recording that included Marilyn Horne performing an aria from Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana, and she was hooked.

She soared to the big time in 1995, when she hit the Metropolitan Opera stage as Georges Bizet’s Carmen, a role that would become her signature. Since then, she has performed it, and dozens of other parts, on stages on four continents. In recent years, she’s also served as cultural ambassador for the U.S., hosted a regular radio show on XM Satellite Radio’s Vox! station, and given birth to a daughter. Ella is now four and will travel with her mother here, for Graves’s Festival Vancouver opening-gala engagement on Tuesday (August 5) at the Orpheum. “My best girlfriend is coming with me and will be there to help with my daughter. That makes it a lot of fun but also more work,” she says with a laugh.

Vancouver opera fans are lucky to see Graves at the height of her considerable vocal powers. “I’d say these days that I’m more confident than I have ever been in my technique and my voice and my body—more confident with my singing body, I would say,” she says. “I’m able to count on it, like I’ve connected with my body. I think that’s happened since I had a child and found my pelvic floor and learned to feel through the ribs.”

The bonus is that she’ll be singing pieces she had a hand in selecting at the Festival Vancouver show, where she’ll be backed by the Vancouver Opera Orchestra and joined by rising Canadian soprano Marianne Fiset on some works. The program ranges from an aria from one of her other signature roles—Dalila in Camille Saint-Saëns’s Samson et Dalila—to the famous Flower Duet from Léo Delibes’s Lakmé.


Denyce Graves4 Denyce Graves says the gospel singing she grew up with as a child has had a lasting impact on her, both as an artist and as a person.

“Since the birth of my daughter I do a lot of recitals and concerts where I don’t have to be away as long,” says Graves. “A recital gives you a real look at who the artist is. It’s a very exposed medium. When I’m doing opera, I’m a character and I can hide behind the shield of who I am playing. With these [recitals], it’s material I choose that speaks to me in some sort of way. The stage is a magnifying glass. They know when you’re being authentic; this medium forces you to be authentic.”

In other words, the recital will allow Vancouver audiences to see firsthand what has made Graves a star. She’s celebrated not only for her rich yet emotionally nuanced voice, but for an acting ability that allows her to play the fiery seductress Dalila as easily as the distraught Charlotte in Jules Massenet’s Werther. There’s also a passion and emotional openness to her singing that you can trace right back to her roots in Washington’s black community and the gospel music that surrounded her growing up.

“It was my musical foundation, and all the work I do comes out of that and my connection to that. It has informed my music-making and who I am,” she enthuses. “I’m an individual who’s always had a very deep connection with the unseen…and it’s allowed me to be more in my heart and expose the intimacies of who I am.”

It’s that strength that helps the star continue to work tirelessly in a world where the life of a diva is not always as charmed as it seems. “Opera only seems glamorous,” she admits. “There is constant rejection and criticism, and travelling alone is just horrendous. But I’m happy and proud that I’m able to make a living for myself and support my family, and to do something that I enjoy.”