By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
American mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves is the hot Carmen right now, and for the next two weeks, she belongs to the Dallas Opera. It was one year ago, on October 7, 1995, that Graves made her Metropolitan Opera debut in the title role in Carmen, an event captured on 60 Minutes and that also brought her fame as ABC News' Person of the Week.
Since then, her life has been what she describes as a roller coaster, and she has come up as far a distance in the past year as the stage of the Met is from the tough, southwest Washington, D.C., neighborhood in which she grew up. She has performed throughout the world in many other roles, including the seductive temptress in Saint-Saens' Samson et Dalila and Dorabella in Mozart's chamber opera, Cosi fan tutte. You also may have seen her recently on a PBS-TV Boston Pops program singing excerpts from Falla's El Amor Brujo with Maria Benitez's flamenco dancers.
But it is a result of her many performances as Carmen that she is making a name for herself in what is still a burgeoning career. After she finishes her Dallas Opera Carmen--the final performance, on Saturday, November 16, is an extra one added by popular demand--Graves goes back to the Met to play the same character beginning November 26 in a new production by Franco Zeffirelli that debuted October 30. The performance will be taped for the Met's international radio broadcast next March.
Graves simultaneously says she is tired of being Carmen and that she is honored to be playing the character in so many productions. "In this business, artists sometimes get identified with certain roles," Graves says. "I'm grateful to her, in a way, because it has been my introduction to nearly every important opera house in the world, many of which I've been asked back to. I'm tired only of directors who lack imagination, who aren't researched, or who have a very shallow interpretation of who she is."
Graves says she sees the fickle cigarette factory worker who charms her jailer--the soldier Don Jose--as a medicine woman, the leader of the pack, a witch. "She's very much in charge of her own self, of her own sexuality. She lives her life according to her own laws, and she doesn't care what anybody else thinks of her," Graves says. "She uses everything in her ability to get what she wants. If that also means her womanness, absolutely she will do it. It doesn't mean she gives away her self."
That sexuality has been played to the hilt in the marketing of Graves-as-Carmen. Tickets can be sold by putting Graves in a slinky, low-cut gown in ads--something that can't be done with a mezzo such as the aging, obese Marilyn Horne. Does that bother Graves? "I cannot control what these spin doctors and PR people do, but I know who I am. I suppose they're trying to sell tickets, and they do what they can to make it enticing...I had a terrible time in Paris, because [the director] insisted that I do something I thought was extremely vulgar. So I did it in rehearsals, but when it came time for the performances, I didn't do it, because--like Carmen--I have to answer to my own personal integrity." In last season's "modernized" Houston Grand Opera production, in fact, Graves was more a barefoot streetwalker than a spirited gitana--a Spanish gypsy. The famous scene in the tavern was transposed to a men's club, and most of the Spanish flavor was excised. The Dallas Opera's production, mercifully, is a more traditional one.
Graves also says she finds tiring colleagues "whom I cannot engage or have an honest exchange with. We fight about what will come first: the music or the theater--the dramatic side of it. I think every successful singing actor has to find a balance. Sometimes you work with singers who just want to stand there and sing. That's fine, but I don't think that for Carmen it's fine. If my colleagues are committed to the characters, as well, then it's exciting; it's a pleasure."
If there were an easy-listening opera musically, Carmen would certainly be it. Its music has been appropriated for everything from Bugs Bunny and Walt Disney cartoons to current-running McDonald's and Era detergent commercials. Stephen Sondheim once said that he hated all opera except for Carmen, which he considered to be more of a musical than an opera. Musicologists and operagoers alike for decades have marveled at French composer Georges Bizet's ability to capture the musical flavor and passion of the people of southern Spain.
One might be surprised, then, to learn that Denyce Graves hates the opera's most famous aria, the habanera, "L'amour est un oiseau rebelle" (Love is a rebellious bird). "I don't like it, but what can I do?" Graves laments. "It's against her character. It wasn't even in the original opera. A singer at the time said to Bizet, 'Excuse me, maestro, we've had 20 minutes...and I don't sing an aria. There needs to be an aria there,' so that one was put in. The way I've made it make sense to me is to make it cynical. She says, 'You think you understand what love is, but you don't. This is what love is: It's like this bird you try to catch, and when you're not looking for it, as much as you chase it, it flies away. When you don't care, then it's there.'"
When Graves returns to New York, she will be reunited with her mentor, "Three Tenors" Placido Domingo. It was Domingo who discovered Graves in a Houston Grand Opera young artists' production of Verdi's Otello after she had bombed out of the finals of the Metropolitan Opera regional auditions in New York and became ill. They later sang Carmen together in London, and he has been tremendously helpful and supportive, she says, in bridging the gap between being a student and a pro. "We did many concerts [and] a few operas together and two recordings, and he was always suggesting me for projects. He's been a wonderful contact, and a wonderful friend, also. There was a period in my life that I was going through something very difficult, and he was very, very kind. He was always calling to check and see how I was doing. He's a lovely human being."
Domingo has expanded his musical career to include conducting and is now director of the Washington Opera. Graves and Domingo plan to record Carmen, but so far there's no firm deal. Graves does, however, have a solid deal to follow on the path that many other opera stars have recently embarked upon: to record a crossover album of show tunes by Cole Porter, Sondheim, and Gershwin. It will be the seventh album in her discography, which includes one solo album.
Other future plans include concerts, recitals, more Dalilas, the role of Marguerite in Berlioz's Damnation of Faust (which she has already done four times this year), another Dorabella, and Charlotte in Massenet's Werther. A secret dream, she says, is to sing Tosca, a role usually reserved for sopranos. Graves is not fond of modern operas, although she just finished doing Stravinsky's 1950s opera, Rake's Progress, in Paris before she came here, and American Carlisle Floyd wrote a role in his 1962 opera, The Passion of Jonathan Wade, with Graves in mind. "It depends on the composer; how it's written. A lot of it, I'm sorry to say, is against the voice. Some things like Mozart make you better; it's therapy for the voice. Others are against the voice; they tear it down."
The roller-coaster ride of Graves' career, she says, has been "wonderful and terrible." She is learning to preserve her private life and spend more quality time with husband Dave Perry, a classical guitarist and importer of Spanish guitars. "When you live your life out of a suitcase on the road, you have to remember there's a tremendous amount of beauty in what we do. At the same time, sometimes you want to just leave the stage and be normal for a little while; sometimes you can just crave solitude. I've learned a thing or two in my little career so far, and in my travels along the way. It's as important to me to schedule quiet time as it is to go to engagements."
In the meantime, Dallas audiences have a chance to catch this rising star now, in performance, before she--like so many others who have hit it big--price themselves out of our market.
The Dallas Opera's production of Carmen happens one last time, on Saturday, November 16, at the Fair Park Music Hall. Call (214) 443-1000 for tickets.