Calling Denyce Graves-Montgomery “an opera singer” would be an understatement. She has performed in opera houses and concert halls worldwide and can do more with one note than most can do with entire arias. To hear her sing is an experience that defies written word and speaks directly to one’s heart and soul.
An award-winning performer, she is particularly well known to audiences for her portrayals of the title roles in Carmen and Samson et Dalila. Her 2012-13 season includes two world premieres: she created the role of Mrs. Miller in the Minnesota Opera’s New Works Initiative commission of Doubt, composed by Douglas J. Cuomo and directed by Kevin Newbury, and of Emelda in Champion, by Terence Blanchard, at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis. She has also joined the voice faculty of the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore.
In this interview, Denyce Graves-Montgomery spoke about her art, love of opera, and the gift of music.
So much work goes into making those hours onstage happen. Does it ever feel like a job?
Yes, it always does. It is always work. There are expectations from the audience and from yourself. There are moments when I can lose myself, and what I try to do is be a vessel and let the music speak through me, but I’m always thinking and aware of what’s in front of me, the approach, how to shape something, execute a phrase. Over the years it has only gotten harder because the voice continues to grow, you reach a plateau, there are things you’ve got to work around and with. My expectations are extremely high and I care tremendously about every performance. I’m very nervous before all of them. It gets harder because expectations are greater and the experience is quite broad, so I have a frame of reference. I know what my best performance is like and I’m always chasing that.
How do you select your repertoire, and what goes into sequencing it? Most audience members probably do not realize how important it is to sequence the songs properly.
Oh gosh, yes, it is crucial. A presenter asked someone who won a competition to sing with the choir before my program, and then asked me if I would sing with them. Absolutely not! Everything I do is worked out so that the voice develops a certain way. You’ve got your own routine and material, so it is extremely important how you program where things fall. I am so aware of that, and I’m best known in this business for thinking in terms of that, what’s programmed, where does it lead the voice, the texture of the voice, shaping the voice to be as clean and lean and placed as high as it can be. I’m very concerned with which pieces are grouped together, so there’s the vocal standpoint. I choose material that means something to me, moves me, that I love hearing or that I always wanted to do, but for me there has to be a heart connection. If you sing material you don’t connect with, nobody else will connect with it either. I always thought the stage to be a magnifying glass where all is revealed and augmented before the eyes of the public, and if you don’t feel it, you can’t deliver in a sincere way. It is also important to me that my musical collaborators love the material, because I’m inspired by them and what they have to say musically. The songs have to resonate with them and we have to be on the same page: united in our minds and hearts. It is absolutely paramount to me.
You are well known for portraying Carmen. Do you still include selections in your concerts?
I always include it. There was a time when I would say, “Please don’t ask me to sing ‘Habanera.’” I used to run away from it. But the public expects it, I embrace it and I’m grateful. It is a blessing to be identified with Carmen.
When you return to a role, is it always new, is it always familiar, or is a bit of both?
It’s certainly familiar in my bones. Carmen and Dalila in particular, but I’m still very much excited by it and I don’t take it for granted. There are still things I want to improve in my delivery and vocal standpoint — the challenges of walking the line between the singing and acting, and things like that that I want to refine and be able to do. I shoot for them all the time. By no means do I feel I’ve got it in my back pocket, not at all. I feel challenged by it on my own, and sometimes with the people I work with.
When people hear the term opera singer, they think about shattering glass, high notes and a performance in a foreign language, but you also do Broadway, jazz and spirituals. How does each genre fulfill an artistic side of you?
I compare it to the friends we have. If we are blessed to have wonderful friends, they each speak to us differently and to different chambers of our hearts that they reach into. I feel the same way about music. I’m engaged in the same principles of spinning beautiful tones and making it relaxed and effortless, but they are very different flavors that I’ve always incorporated into my concerts and recitals. I get pleasure out of it and look forward to it. I love doing Gershwin, Bernstein and spirituals. They are all very different flavors and it’s nice to offer variety to the audience; it’s interesting for them and for me. These are moments when I’m able to reach into a very different place, and I’m interested in exploring that onstage through the lens of performance. I take a tremendous amount of risks onstage and that excites me. Sometimes it’s more successful than others, but I enjoy playing with my instrument and sharing that. [Opera singer] Renée Fleming came out with a rock CD, and I did an event with her in New York City. People were saying, “Can you believe that she did this?” Why not? It’s something she always wanted to do. Life goes by quickly, and everyone should go for whatever turns them on and lies in their heart and wants to be expressed. So I offer a great variety and I’m excited by it.
How often does someone come to you after a concert and say, “This was my introduction to opera, and I had no idea I would enjoy it so much”?
Not once has someone not said, “This is the first time I heard opera,” and I feel so proud of that. I feel I have done something wonderful with my life and talent because it was a discovery for someone. We all have preconceived notions of what opera is, and it suffers under a great stereotype. I’m not sure even 5 percent of the population has heard of opera or seen it. I feel a great responsibility, and I’m excited when people say, “I had no idea what opera was, and even if I did not understand it word for word, I understood it emotionally and I love it.” Music is a different type of language. It’s the language of the soul. It’s the universal language. We all share a wonderful way of speaking with each other through this language of music.
Does your young daughter listen to opera?
My daughter is very musical. How that will manifest itself in her life remains to be seen, but she loves music. She hates taking her piano lessons, I can tell you that, but she sings constantly and is a very happy child. She also dances a bit. Music is an enormous part of her life. At this moment it’s mostly opera and she knows the songs. She recognizes the sequences and melodies of the operas and knows the names.
She is proof of the importance of music in a child’s life, something I’m sure you think about often, with cutbacks in music education programs and children spending so much time in front of computers.
You are so right. We are losing our connection and touch. We are human beings, not human doings. But we shall soldier forward and do our best and hope that the message is as loud as we can scream it. All sorts of studies have shown the benefits of music and that children learn other subjects because of that, so we shall keep endeavoring toward that cause.
To learn more about Denyce Graves, visit www.denycegraves.com.