La Divina sings Cinderella’s final scene. Is there anything she couldn’t sing? I once came across a video of her singing the “Liebestod” in Italian, and it was one of the most beautiful accounts of that piece of music I’ve ever heard.
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.
Natalie Dessay “Non disperar”
I have a confession to make. I’m not really interested in Baroque opera at all. (Yes, opera buffs begin stoning me to death.) The genre has always struck me as an overly long form of musical theater with fantastic, but far too many musical numbers.
However, as we all know, once in a blue moon a production or performer can come along and change your preconceived notions. For a long time I thought “Traviata” was a soppy, musty bore until I saw Willy Decker’s spare, erotically charged production with Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazon. Now I’m convinced it’s an incredible piece of theater.
The stars seem rightly aligned for the Met’s “Giulio Cesare”. David McVicar is a director of endless ingenuity, and Natalie Dessay is performer who continues to evolve and astound in surprising ways. This pint-sized soprano continues to challenge what is possible for an opera singer to achieve on stage.
If I can get over my hang-ups on Baroque opera, and my phobia of countertenors (the first time I saw a countertenor I lost my sex drive for a whole month) this “Giulio Cesare” ought to be a rollicking good time!
And this is not great. In fact, it’s pretty bizarre. What a weird choice! Doing a lap around the stage before collapsing. I get where she’s going with it, but it’s campy, a bit silly and very insincere.
Disclaimer:To all the users who are about to send me anonymous insults, calling me nasty names and suggesting that I die for criticizing Renne Fleming, I need to mention that I am a worshiper in the house of Renee. I just tend to be baffled by her weird interpretive strokes occasionally.
This wonderful! When she’s good, she’s good! I don’t care what people say about her. Her performance in “Der Rosenkavalier” was one of the most magical nights at the opera I’ve ever had.
My favorite part of “Ann Nicole: The Opera” which, by the way, is one f%$#ing awesome opera. I know some operagoers were incensed or turned off by the subject matter, but opera has a long history of trashy dizzy dames. For god sakes, has anyone heard of “Lulu” or “Manon?” And, if something artful and intelligent like this opera attracts loads of people (tickets were apparently impossible to come by), isn’t it worth considering? I say yes!
How the hell does she produce that glorious note when she sings, “Da drin ist die silberne Ros’n?” She’s wonderful in this part.
Oh Natalie! How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. Regardless of what one thinks of her, she is an important presence in opera today. I’m so grateful for her. Opera would be SO BORING without this chick!!!
As I mentioned earlier, a really weird, awkward film adaptation of Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” starring Anna Moffo. Questions: Why is Lucia’s wedding taking place in the mid-afternoon? Why is Lucia going balls out crazy in front of her house? And why doesn’t she have any guests at her own wedding? It looks like Lucia woke up from a brief siesta and decided to go dancing on the front lawn. But, as always, exquisitely beautiful singing by Moffo.
Much has been made of Anna Moffo’s fast vocal decline and her mismanaged career, but I love her voice and she was, in her prime, quite an exquisite artist.
At its best, her voice was a deliciously rich lyric soprano, with an unusually strong bottom and a meltingly plush middle and top range. She was incredibly beautiful and, more importantly, was a true actress with an utter commitment to dramatic truth.
Sadly, there is very little documentation of her work. But thankfully, her most important roles, namely Violetta the consumptive heroin of “La Traviata” and the title character in “Lucia di Lammeroor,” have been preserved on very fine, digitally remastered recordings. (Her “Traviata” in particular is, in my opinion, one of the best accounts of Verdi’s masterpiece.) There is also a spectacular recording of the Puccini rarity, “La Rondine,” but it’s out of print. Sadly, the only footage of her available of her is two campy, ill-conceived film adaptations of “La Traviata” and “Lucia di Lammermoor.”
Still, one shouldn’t grouse. Ms. Moffo was a great, underrated artist and we are lucky to have any account of her available today.
Audra McDonald & Soledad O’Brien
Juan Diego Florez & Sacha Baron Cohen
Rolando Villazon & Mr. Bean
Marina Poplavskaya & Meryl Streep
Anna Netrebko & Salma Hayek
Natalie Dessay & Rachel Dratch
Deborah Voigt & Nancy Grace
“What is a beautiful voice? I have no use for this term. Give me a dramatic voice, a voice with character. A voice should grab one’s attention and be compelling! This is all I ask of a singer and their voice.” - Giuseppe Verdi (1813 - 1901)
“City Opera, still reeling from financial troubles, seems to have ceded the field almost entirely. What was most depressing about the La Traviata that opened its abbreviated 2012 season last month wasn’t the inanity of the powdered-wig-realism production, though opera rarely feels so irrelevant and pointless, with a tepid first act that felt like a garden party rather than a prostitute’s late-night blowout. No, the most depressing thing was that it opened just two months before the Met’s revival of the thoughtful, contemporary, radically spare Willy Decker production that pointed in a new direction for the company’s treatment of the standard repertory when it premiered in 2010.” - Zachary Woolfe
As a tireless advocate for th arts, I feel it is incumbent upon me to both encourage and help young singers as they prepare to attend conservatory.
As everyone knows, in order to be a great singer, one absolutely must attend a major conservatory; preferably in New York or Dallas Fort Worth, the two booming opera capitals of the world.
I’ve found a fantastic video on YouTube, which I think perfectly sums up my experience at conservatory. Of course every experience is different, but this very fair and honest look as conservatory life will, in my opinion, best help young singers navigate the often tricky but rewarding decisions and compromises one invariably makes while building a successful and fulfilling career in the arts. Enjoy!