On a high note

Opera superstar Denyce Graves opens Opera Carolina season

by Alison Woo

Denyce Graves

Very few artists have achieved the success of opera superstar Denyce Graves.
The messo-soprano made her debut at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera House in 1995 in the title role of “Carmen” and has toured every major opera house in the world. But at a time when other artists might consider slowing down, Graves continues to relish and expand her creative capabilities.
Graves will open Opera Carolina’s 2011-12 season with Giuseppe Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” (The Troubadour.) In it, she plays Azucena, the fiery mother who avenges her son’s life and death. She has spent the past few weeks rehearsing the part.
“It’s very different from the times before,” she said. “I’ve had enough time with this production to really see Charlotte (and) do a lot of reading about the opera and prepare for each rehearsal.”
Graves has performed in Charlotte before, when she was the lead in Opera Carolina’s “Margaret Garner” for the 2005-06 season. This is the second time Graves has led in “Il Trovatore.”
“The first time was a short while just after the birth of my daughter,” Graves said. “I have grown a lot vocally since then. Things have to be readjusted. I see things differently, and I reproduce differently. But what I also bring is where I am in my own development as a human being.”
Graves plays a character who draws on an inordinate amount of maternal strength.
“I have had a great amount of compassion for this particular character and her circumstances. She is very much a victim whose life has been about avenging this death, but in the meantime, it has stunted her own growth and movement forward,” she said. “And I can certainly understand the devastation one feels from losing a child.”
She sees the world from a holistic perspective. That’s what grounds not only her artistry but her life.
“The challenge for every one of us is to stay present in the moment, not only as an artist but also as a human being trying to become more present in all that I do,” she said. “Part of my work requires that I have my emotions available, so I use them in service to my art. I practice that with meditation and a variety of other methods.”

An artist in evolution
In the spectrum of artistic endeavors, opera is the most kind in terms of growing into a craft and valuing the years of study. Graves sees herself as a perpetual student.
“Studying voice is never completed. You never arrive, and I’m always learning,” she said. “The voice is always changing based on the different environments you are in. One has to become very flexible in your own outlook and how you approach the piece from a muscular standpoint, even from performance to performance during a run.
“Technique is all about how you sing when you are tired, when you don’t feel well or when your voice is veiled. A teacher once said you will never be judged on your best singing. You are judged by the average singing. So many times… you are in your best voice when you are doing your laundry, not when you are making your debut at the Metropolitan Opera House. That’s why we practice and challenge ourselves with new things. I consider myself a singing athlete.”
All the travel and touring required in her career might be exhausting. But her love of the medium, which started as a child, drives her.
“The truth is I would sing whether people were listening or not, but I am extremely fortunate that they pay me to do it,” she said. “Singing heals me. It makes me a better human being and a more interesting person, to learn about myself and life through the lens of the operatic experience.
“The one thing I enjoy about this career is that this is a profession where you have to deliver the goods. There is no easy way through this. It’s not about who you are or how you look. Some of that could play a part and help in a few instances, but at the end of the day, you have to deliver, and that decision is made on the stage. I don’t think you can cheat your way through this profession.”
Artists have to live between their own view of themselves and the views of critics and audiences. Graves seems to have found a happy balance of the two.
“Although I personally do not read reviews or pay too much attention to what’s being said by others, I don’t believe it when artists say they don’t care. I find that inconceivable,” she said. “But I try to keep my energy on what it is that I need to do. I remind myself about my own plan about what I want to do to come to stage and deliver and how present I want to be in the telling of my story.
“The music business can be a sharp, brutal place. But I remember seeing a badge at a hospital that said, ‘Be kind to the elderly, to the young, to the inexperienced, to the naive because at some point in your life you have been one or more of these things.’ That’s how I try to consciously live my life with everyone. Whether it’s on the stage or not, my intention is to be kind.”

See Denyce Graves in “Il Travotore”
Opera Carolina’s production of “Il Trovatore” runs from Oct. 15 to 23. Find more information and  purchase tickets at Opera Carolina’s website, www.operacarolina.org.

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