Incandescent young soprano Danielle de Niese making a splash
December 19, 2007
CHICAGO ” With her dancer’s body, huge brown eyes and California-casual personal style, soprano Danielle de Niese hardly fits the stereotype of an opera star.
No horned helmet for her, as this season’s poster outside Lyric Opera of Chicago attests. It shows the 27-year-old de Niese in a jewel-encrusted brassiere ” and little else.
She blogs. She has a MySpace page. She had a cameo in a movie you’ve probably heard of. You can download wallpaper of her from her Web site.
Oh, and she can sing. The Wall Street Journal review of “Giulio Cesare” a few weeks ago gushed about the “astonishing” de Niese who sang brilliantly even as she danced effortlessly.
Besides pulling in audiences, de Niese says, her youth and glamor are useful tools in recruiting young people as potential opera audiences and performers ” something the art form needs to survive.
“Outreach appearances in the schools are usually part of my contracts, and I love doing them,” de Niese said in a recent interview backstage. “If I get just one little girl interested, I feel that I’ve done something there.”
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De Niese says she was that little girl herself not that long ago. Now, she has already been performing professionally for a dozen years.
S. Paul Driscoll, editor in chief of the magazine Opera News, recalled seeing video of de Niese’s performance in the Glyndebourne production of “Giulio Cesare” that “blew me away.”
“She is not only very pretty with a great voice, a great figure and amazing sex appeal, but she has the confidence that comes with having spent most of your life on stage ” something you normally see only in a much older performer,” he said.
“And this is not only musical and vocal confidence ” some other young singers have that ” but it’s physical confidence. It’s when she launches off into one of those dance routines or the way she wears a costume. She fills the stage.”
Her life seems so charmed that even an encounter with . Hannibal Lecter turned out pleasantly.
“No, he didn’t eat me,” she said recently of her appearance in the 2001 movie “Hannibal.”
The first half of the movie was set in Florence and the producers commissioned a short opera from German composer Hans Zimmer and Irish composer Patrick Cassidy, de Niese said.
“It was based on Dante’s ‘La Vita Nuova,’ and I sang the role of Beatrice,” she said.” I got to eat the heart of Dante ” symbolically.”
De Niese also feels the cannibal psychiatrist played by Anthony Hopkins has very good taste ” at least musically.
“He’s into Bach,” she said.
De Niese is a baroque specialist herself, but Handel’s her man. She lit up the stage at Lyric this fall as Cleopatra in the U.S. premiere of David McVicar’s acclaimed Glyndebourne Festival production of his “Giulio Cesare,” singing, dancing, and alluring every man in the house.
The hyperkinetic production, which pays homage to both Hollywood and Bollywood musicals, would seem tailor-made for de Niese, with her dancing skill and exotic beauty, but she denied that McVicar had her in mind for its 2005 debut.
“I was originally supposed to make my Glyndebourne debut as Adele in ‘Die Fledermaus’ in 2006, but the original Cleopatra had to pull out for health reasons, and they called me in only because I knew the role,” she said. “When I showed up, the whole first scene was already choreographed.”
Nonetheless, she quickly made the role her own, and clearly identifies with it.
“I get a chance to sing seven or eight major arias and a number of duets, and I simply love the story arc of the character,” she said, noting that the Egyptian queen begins as a mischievous flirt, but soon has to learn about political alliances, true love, danger and the need for heroic leadership.
“This kind of journey is a thrill to make on stage,” she said.
De Niese’s own journey is remarkable, too.
She was born in 1980 in Australia to parents who had emigrated from Sri Lanka.
“My father was Sri Lankan and Dutch and my mother was Sri Lankan and Scottish, but they didn’t meet until they were both living in Australia,” she said.
Encouraged by her mother, who had studied voice herself, de Niese began studying voice and dance at an early age.
“I got into singing when I was 6,” she said.
By the time she was 10, she showed enough talent that her parents decided to move to Los Angeles, which offered greater training opportunities. She was enrolled in the Richard Colburn School, where she studied piano, voice, dance and music theory.
And as if her plate wasn’t already full enough, by 13 she was also serving as permanent guest host for a TV show called “L.A. Kids,” which she describes as “a ’60 Minutes’-style current events show for teenagers.” A segment on children living with HIV won a local Emmy in 1996.
That was a year after de Niese made her professional debut with the Los Angeles Opera ” at 15 ” and decided that she would subordinate all her other activities to her singing.
“The thing that fuels me the most is the desire to be on stage,” she said. “And singing is the ultimate way of expressing all the emotions that I have inside.”
After high school, de Niese went on to Mannes College of Music in New York and, in short order, to the Metropolitan Opera. At 19, she was the youngest performer ever chosen for the Met’s Young Artists’ Program, and she was simultaneously picked for the role of Barbarina in a production of Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro.” Other cast members included soprano Renee Fleming, mezzo Cecilia Bartoli and bass-baritone Bryn Terfel.
“I thought that all my Christmases had come at once,” de Niese said.
Other triumphs followed ” in Amsterdam, Paris, Naples and other operatic centers ” topped by her career-making performance at Glyndebourne.
De Niese has specialized so far in Mozart and baroque works, but plans to branch out into some of Donizetti’s lighter roles in the next few years. To protect her still-developing voice, she says she plans to wait a bit before tackling the heavier Verdi and Puccini heroines.
Her career plans are careful and cautious, but you wouldn’t know it hearing de Niese talk about one upcoming role, Euridice in Gluck’s “Orfeo ed Euridice.”
“I get to die on stage!” she said. “None of my characters have died so far, and I really, really, really want to die on stage!”
It seems a bit unfair to point out that Euridice gets resurrected.