Essence of a Diva

15 Mar 2006
An interview with opera singer Denyce Graves

For one night only, tomorrow March 16th, our city will host one of the most exciting and renowned voices in the operatic world. Denyce Graves will be gracing the stage at the Toronto Centre for the Arts’ George Weston Hall. Speaking to AfroToronto.com over the phone from Texas last week, Ms Graves looked forward to returning to Toronto after having only been here once before many years ago.

Denyce Graves has built an international reputation as a leading opera performer. She has performed in the world’s greatest opera houses and concert halls. Responding to my question of whether she had a favourite place or continent to perform in, Ms Graves says: “I love performing in beautiful halls and … wherever I am, and whatever it is I’m doing, I consider it a privilege to be able to lead my life in such a way that brings me such beauty and hopefully that brings beauty into the lives of others.

Really wherever I am is where I’m happy to be. It makes the experience that much more wonderful and beautiful when I perform in a beautiful hall with a wonderful acoustic that really supports, highlights, and showcases the human voice. Obviously, theatres with wonderful acoustics make a big difference.” Ysis Entertainment must be commended for choosing an ideal setting like George Weston Hall to showcase Ms Graves’ amazing voice.

Our conversation harkens back to the early years of the Washington D.C. native. Ms Graves recalls how the church played an important early role in her burgeoning path to her stellar career. Her mother used to say that God had kissed her throat. Denyce Graves started singing in the church choir very young. From elementary school going on to junior high school, she got involved with All City Chorus, which was comprised of different singers from across the city coming together to put on concerts. From there, she went to the Duke Ellington School for Performing Arts. It is there that she knew singing would become her life and career.

Reflecting her gospel roots, Graves’ company produced a CD entitled Church: Songs of Soul and Inspiration. It was an interesting mix of soul, pop, R&B and classics. Speaking of this project, I ask Ms Graves if her involvement in such genre-crossing endeavours are ways in which she can help broaden the appeal and knowledge of opera or classical music. She replies: “I always like to recruit as many people to this beautiful genre as possible. But I’m an opera singer first and foremost. But even before that, I’m a lover of music.” Denyce Graves likes many genres of music. “Opera music happens to be my choice because it fits my style and temperament. … I’ve been very interested in other genres that have informed my music making” she adds.


Two of Denyce Graves’ most defining roles in her operatic career have been in Carmen and Samson and Delila. These signature roles have brought Ms. Graves to the Metropolitan Opera, Vienna Staatsoper, Royal Opera - Covent Garden, San Francisco Opera, Opéra National de Paris, Lyric Opera of Chicago, The Washington Opera, Bayerische Staatsoper, Arena di Verona, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Opernhaus Zürich, Teatro Real in Madrid, Houston Grand Opera, Dallas Opera, Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, Los Angeles Opera, and the Festival Maggio Musicale in Florence. She recalls for AfroToronto.com her earliest encounters with her storied role as Carmen: “Well, that was quite an experience. When I was a student in college, I worked on some scenes in Carmen. As I began to mature, my voice type seemed to be that of a Mezzo-soprano, and the particular role of Carmen suited to my colour of instrument and my size of instrument. So I had my very first experience with that in 1991 with the Minnesota Opera and it was a huge success and after that my agency was getting calls all the time for me to sing Carmen.” Describing the role of Carmen, Graves says that “as an actress, it’s a great opportunity” because Carmen embodies a very wide emotional range that she gets to express over the evening. “And she’s a wonderful personality.”

But describing one of her other signature roles in Samson and Delila, Graves admits to loving Delila more. “Delila is more about singing” as she points out. “It’s really gratifying [and] very well written. It suits me, it suits my voice for sure.” Nevertheless, Graves definitely sees acting and singing as going hand in hand through the artistic journey of taking any performance to its highest levels. “I think the bottom line is to be able to tell a story and to tell that as honestly and sincerely as possible.” She has been described as a “singing actress.”

>> Denyce Graves as Carmen
>> In Samson and Delila

Speaking of the power and range of music to reach the souls of human beings, we discuss her much-heralded involvement in several memorial concerts following the tragic events of September 11th, 2001. Ms Graves closed off the Concert for America in September 2002 with a rousing performance of America the Beautiful. She also appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show in a live musical program of “Healing through Gospel Music.” Speaking on the healing power of music, Graves says: “I think it’s one of the truest forms that come straight from God. Every instrument in the planet is trying to imitate the human voice. ... Words don’t describe the depth of what feelings hold and I think the closest we come to that is in music. The closest we get to being able to express the intensity of our feelings is through music.”

Of course, we could not conduct an interview with an international superstar like Denyce Graves who has shared the stage with the likes of Pattie LaBelle and Placido Domingo without tackling the topic of the often-used label of “Diva.” What is your impression of the term? I ask her. Do you like it? Dislike it? Graves responds: “I suppose it depends on the context in which it’s used. Now the word has become so generic. Everybody uses it for everything. Maybe it’s lost some of its beauty and some of its power. But I like to claim it for the operatic world. I believe that that’s where it originated. The Greek goddess. And had always sort of been reserved for the classical arena. But I think what it does mean is a female artist who is very confident and assured of herself and does the best and gives her best, she expects the best from others.”

For further information pertaining to Denyce Graves’ upcoming recordings, engagements and projects, please visit her website at: www.denycegraves.com


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