Q&A with Soprano Danielle de Niese

Handpicked to sing the lead in Lyric Opera's world premiere of Bel Canto by Jimmy Lopez, Danielle de Niese is  ready for the landmark role and ready to blaze a trail to get opera out beyond the opera house.

By David Carmichael

Soprano Danielle de Niese (photo courtesy of Danielle de Niese).

From the Winter 2016 Issue of Clef Notes Journal

She’s been called “opera’s coolest soprano” (The New York Times), and that is at least in part due to the fact that she has been applying her incredible pearly tone to works across a plethora of genres that have illustrated her artistic dexterity without necessarily diluting her prowess in the field of classical music, a bold approach to a modern operatic career for a young soprano, but lyric Australian-American soprano Danielle de Niese has the chops and the vision to make it stick.

She’s made the rounds at some of the biggest operatic battle grounds on the planet, including the The Royal Opera at Covent Garden, The Met in New York and Lyric Opera of Chicago. She’s graced the Broadway stage and had roles in film, too.

This season she’s been tapped to star in the lead role of Lyric Opera’s world premiere production, Bel Canto, the new work of composer Jimmy Lopez commissioned by the Lyric Unlimited initiative under the guidance of acclaimed soprano Renee Fleming and Lyric's conductor Sir Andrew Davis—a vote of confidence most sopranos would give their eye teeth for.

But she takes it all in stride, understanding that her mission, like that of Lyric Unlimited, is to get opera out beyond opera, a lofty goal for such a young and emerging star.

I had a chance to chat with the soprano this fall, and let me tell you, she’s the real deal. It will be a revelation to see her in the role written to showcase not just her art but the passion that drives the uncommon dreams of getting opera out to the masses.

The New York Times has called you “opera’s coolest soprano.” Having starred in opera productions at the Met and Covent Garden and yet performed onstage with artists like L.L. Cool J, yours has to be about the most eclectic career an artist of your caliber has nurtured today. And in an industry where crossover is often feared to dilute the seriousness of their art, yours has proven to be the antithesis of that notion. How do you account for the accessibility you’ve enjoyed across genres, while still maintaining potency in the classical realm?

Since I was a child, I have always worked across different genres— from classical to jazz, Broadway, television and recording. The key to my identity is my classical voice and training— being an opera singer is who I am but it has not limited me from engaging in the many other aspects of entertainment and performance, which I adore. I think part of the reason it works for me, is because I genuinely adore all these various aspects of performing, singing, and communicating…I grew up idolizing artists who had the “triple threat” factor...Singing, moving, performing were never separate entities—one could never be done without the other—this training and experience in many genres has really informed my integral approach as a classical artists. I feel that people can see that for me, performing in other genres is not a tactic or marketing idea to try and gain a new audience—it is genuinely who I am, and I feel that in today’s world, authenticity goes a long way in reaching the heart of people who come to see me perform.

You’ve said in the past that there really isn’t anyone in the industry that you readily identify with that is doing what you are trying to do? Does being a trailblazer in the classical and operatic space have the effect of freeing you in your career path and choices, or do you find it hems you in to that role perhaps adding pressure to always make bold choices in your work?

I think it does a bit of both. "Trailblazer" is not a word I would use to describe myself, I’m hugely flattered that anyone would see me this way—but yes, I suppose “trailblazer” is a word weighted with responsibility...I take so much care and caution with my artistic choices. Every part of the path I cut for myself has been made with love and desire to do the very, very best that I can do. I have a very small team of people; I can count them on one hand, and fifty-percent of them are family.

In this particular new phase, like a new moon, of my career I am finding myself emerging from a chrysalis into a different form. Like the butterfly I am still everything that I was before—but I am growing into my skin now, and my vocal development is taking me onto new paths and new routes—it’s allowing me to make some new choices and this will definitely be seen over the next few years.

You’ll return this year to Lyric Opera starring in one of the world’s most anticipated major operatic premieres, Jimmy Lopez’s Bel Canto. What attracted you to the role of Roxane Coss, whom you’ll sing in the new production?

The main thing that attracted me at first was actually getting the role! I couldn’t believe my ears when I found out, and to have been given the ultimate blessing from Renee Fleming herself to take on this role in a project she is so close to and so attached to. It is one of the career milestones of my life. To receive that vote of confidence from Renee Fleming, Sir Andrew Davis and the Lyric Opera of Chicago. I am still very touched…and find it hard to put into words.

To create a role is, for me, a divine act—it is as close as a singer can come to creating something from scratch. To start a process from text and music and to bring every fiber of my whole being into the skin of a character that I can create from the soul outwards—it is why I am an opera singer.

Roxanne Coss is a very hard nut to crack in Nilo’s (Cruz) libretto—and that is the best thing about her—Nilo has given me a character who has a big journey to make. Roxanne Coss could be portrayed as a perfect singer with a perfect voice but lacking in heart who finds her “heart” in the opera. This would be the easy choice. What is very nuanced about Jimmy Lopez’s music and Nilo Cruz’s libretto is that Roxanne’s first aria is so otherworldly and captivating—there is no way she could sing that aria without heart and soul—So the challenge of her journey, or the “color" of her journey, becomes infinitely more nuanced.

You haven’t been shy about your desire to open doors to opera and operatic works to broader audiences with your career. Is Bel Canto just the kind of work that can attract newer audiences to the genre?

Absolutely! Bel Canto represents all that is great about modern opera today. This show is cinematic in its scope, and the journey plays out like a feature film. The story is deeply fleshed out—you fall in love with all of the characters—the subject matter is deeply relevant to our times—and heart-breakingly, even more relevant in a way we never planned due to the events of the Paris attacks. I hope many people will come and see this show…this opera sits exactly where art and current affairs collide— I cannot imagine a more immediate and gripping piece of modern opera story telling than this.

You’ll also participate in an intriguing new series at Harris Theater this winter, Behind the Aria. The collaborative initiative to introduce new audiences to opera is right up your alley. What side of Danielle de Niese will the cabaret style performance make Chicago audiences privy to?

For starters, artists don’t get to chat while performing on stage in operas—so it will be a wonderful chance to talk to the audience in a very intimate atmosphere—also the repertoire can really run the gamut from Handel to Hammerstein—it’s an “anything goes” atmosphere—and that level of unpredictability is always great to see up close!

If you could have lunch with one operatic composer from Claudio Monteverdi to Jimmy Lopez, who would it be?

Well, I’m having lunch with Jimmy Lopez already so I will count myself lucky to have two lunches and say…. Hugo Wolf.

Why Hugo Wolf?

I really adore his music; it has a very focused intensity and feels almost tortured and obsessive, which really appeals to my artistic senses—I feel his music speaks to the very deepest chambers of my soul, and I would love to know him.

What’s your favorite guilty pleasure when you’re away from the operatic stage?

Watching rom-coms, How I Met Your Mother, or my favorite science fiction show, Farscape…Though I don’t feel guilty about any of them. I never have much time to do that anyway— it’s usually planes or car rides—but now that I have a 22 week old little boy—it’s cuddles and giggles all the time!

You can see Danielle de Niese in Lyric Opera’s world premiere production of Bel Canto by composer Jimmy Lopez, opening at Civic Opera House on December 7.