I take no pleasure in tearing down singers (I really don’t). But so much has been made of the soprano Danielle de Niese, and what a prodigy she is. Article after article mentions how she became the youngest singer ever accepted into the Met’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, her professional operatic debut at the age of 15 with the Los Angeles Opera, her Metropolitan Opera debut at 19 as Barbarina in Mozart’s “Nozze di Figaro” alongside Renée Fleming, Bryn Terfel and Cecilia Bartoli. These accomplishments are nothing to scoff at. They are mighty and considerable. But, oh, the glorification…spare me! It strikes me as just another example of the toxic fetishization of prodigies in our society and, to a larger extent, a product of America’s youth obsession which seems to be manifesting itself more and more in the opera world. The younger and faster a singer gets to the “finish line” (an international career), the better.
As a young singer, I can’t help but feel a bit bad about myself when I read articles (and there are plenty) about singers like Ms. de Niese, and I suspect others feels the same way. Never mind that, as a young tenor, my voice won’t really emerge until the age of 25, if then. Young singers everywhere are feeling the pressure to reach the Met by the age of 19 (an absurd notion for 90% of most singers out there). Ms. de Niese is the exception, not the rule, but the exceptions receive the majority of the press, creating a skewed perspective as to what it actually takes to build a successful international career, to say nothing of developing a young voice.
But back to the subject of Ms. de Niese. At 34, still very young, but at an age when her voice should be in full bloom, her sound is shrill, thin, metallic and deeply manufactured. Perhaps making your Met debut at 19 doesn’t mean you’ll be a great singer? Everything is subjective, and if comments on YouTube are any indication, Ms. de Niese clearly has her loyal band of followers. But I simply can’t listen to her. Even some singers with technical shortcomings can compensate with sounds that are intriguing and beguiling in ways that keep listeners coming back for more (Marina Poplavskaya comes to mind). But Ms. de Niese’s sound isn’t just pallid, it is thoroughly and consistently monochromatic, making it both boring and unpleasant to listen to. She is also one of the first singers I’ve ever had trouble hearing at the Met. While attending a performance of the odious “The Enchanted Island,” sitting in the mid-orchestra section, I could barely make out Ms. de Neise’s singing. Her voice was so thoroughly devoid of resonance and squillo (ping), that she was practically inaudible - a troubling notion when one considers that “The Enchanted Island” was a Baroque pastiche with a reduced orchestra and I wasn’t that far from the stage.
This is all such a shame because Ms. de Niese clearly has the makings of an enthralling actress (if she’d ever find an intention to play other than “cute”), and she is an insanely beautiful woman. “Giulio Cesare’s” Cleopatra has become one of her signature roles, largely due to a notorious Bollywood style dance she performs in David McVicar’s Glyndebourne production. If she could sing properly, it would be the perfect melding of a role, actress and singer. I don’t begrudge the fact that she is an attractive young woman, though many do, and it is understandable. I really begrudge the media’s glorification of her status as a prodigy. I feel the emphasis on that is sending a far more dangerous message than anything else. As I said before, a young voice needs time, lots of time, to develop. When discussing her career in The New York Times, the wonderful mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato said, “It was a slow birth.” I hate to say this, but whenever Ms. de Niese was on stage during “The Enchanted Island,” my thoughts repeatedly drifted to Ms. DiDonato’s previous scene or aria. She was far more interesting to watch and listen to. Last weekend, the Met broadcasted the McVicar production of “Cesare,” that Ms. de Niese had originally starred in, with Natalie Dessay as Cleopatra. Singing with shimmering sound, bringing new shades and nuances to the role of the crafty queen with her prodigious acting skills, I couldn’t help but feel as though the much older Ms. Dessay was eons more compelling and effective than Ms. de Niese could ever be. Being a prodigy may make for good copy, but it doesn’t make for good opera.