The Aussie star won Young Talent Time at age eight. We caught up with the soprano ahead of her debut in The Merry Widow.
You have a unique genealogical background. What do you think of yourself as nowadays?
My parents were born in Sri Lanka and they’re mixed with Dutch and Scottish heritage, but they met in Australia and that’s where I was born, so I definitely consider myself an Australian. We moved to the US when I was ten, but I always think Australia gave me wings because had I not gotten those opportunities I would have never continued my training. At the same time, America with its pre-university age conservatories that can really harness people who are training at that age, allowed me to continue.
Are either of your parents musical?
My mother took voice and piano lessons, but she never wanted to actually be a singer. She’s incredibly musical and I’m still learning so much from her. The quickest way to describe it is that I feel she taught me the difference between singing and interpreting. You can just sing the notes on the page and you can have a beautiful voice, and then there’s all of the other things that come with interpretation, with making something your own, putting your own fingerprint on the music and giving it a life that feels organic to you. That I learned from her, without a doubt.
Australian soprano Danielle de Niese. Photo © Chris Dunlop/Decca
Your Met debut was age 19 as Barbarina in The Marriage of Figaro under James Levine. Was that daunting for you at the time?
I remember everybody else being really concerned for me, and I remember me being rather cool as a cucumber. That’s because I’d already been singing in public from my Australia days. But it was a big deal. I was quite nervous actually on the inside, but on the outside I was sort of ready. I can remember somebody saying to me, “this is the dream team of casts you’re in. That’s what everybody’s calling it and it’s only going to be downhill from here.” And I thought that was so funny. But it was an amazing cast – Cecilia [Bartoli] and Renée [Fleming] and Bryn [Terfel] and Dwayne [Croft] and Susanne Mentzer. It was just the dreamiest. The other thing I remember so strongly was that there were no issues in the rehearsal room. Everybody was so prepared, so willing, so well-rehearsed. Really proper colleagues, no diva antics, no irresponsible activities going on. It was just a brilliant conducive atmosphere because it was all A-listers. You kind of go, “okay, with people who get to the top, I get why they got there.” They have the greatest work ethic and they’re the nicest people and the hardest working, so I was thrilled to be a part of something like that.
So what are the most challenging things you’ve had to overcome in opera?
It’s difficult to answer, because often when I’ve been in a tough piece I’ve not wanted to embrace what is negative about the production or what is challenging. I’ve definitely had shows where strange things have been asked of me. It has also been tough to sing hanging upside down or somersaulting, but that’s also kind of fun. My general rule when it comes to risk taking is to try it first and then say no if you can’t do it. Sometimes I end up doing wild things, but also I hate the idea of just doing wild and crazy things for the sake of it, just because it’s sensational. It becomes a gimmicky thing. I remember after Julius Caesar, everybody was going, “wow, she’s a soprano and she can dance”, and I was thinking, “well, I’m not going to dance in every show now just because that’s what I do. I’m not a one-trick pony.”
What is really tough is when you do a show and other people don’t know the part. That’s incredibly draining and have been some of my harder experiences. When you see your colleagues, and so many other people, have been responsible and know the part, but there’s one or two people who don’t, they’re so irresponsible. If they don’t know the music or they don’t care to prepare they just drag the energy out of a show and that drains the poor director who is trying to balance all the needs of his actors. All the energy ends up going to the person who is doing the least. But we always get there, and even in those situations, it all works out in the end. That’s something people don’t really know about most people who do art. The back stories you hear are wildly different from the final product.
When you married Glyndebourne’s Gus Christie, did you feel like you might become embroiled in the family business?
When Gus was courting me, we kind of didn’t speak about it. We just wanted to get to know one another on our own terms. We didn’t tell anyone about our early courtship. As soon as people found out, everyone started clucking away. But Gus and I got to know each other very much on our own terms, and certainly, if I’m being frank, which I generally am, my being with Gus was not without its hiccups professionally. At first it was really upsetting – the media frenzy – and then you had the people who come out and go, “oh, is that why this is happening – so she’s just going to sing at Glyndebourne then?” Really wrong assumptions about how things work! That still happens sometimes. I still meet people who assume I sing at Glyndebourne every year when my casting at Glyndebourne has nothing to do with my husband and everything to do with the artistic administration. Or, for example, when I had my son. I worried that people were going to think, “ah, she’s going to go off and be Mrs Glyndebourne and have kids”, and I was desperate to show everybody in the business that I’m not going anywhere. I’m going to have a son and I’m going back to work, like my mum did.
Thinking about roles you’ve been particularly associated with – Cleopatra, Poppea and Hanna Glawari – they’re all strong willed, independent women. Is this a coincidence?
[Laughs] Yeah, it’s all planned. I think a woman can be both strong and vulnerable, and what’s interesting about the three people that you’ve mentioned, is that they have a deeply vulnerable side as well, which you get to see in the operas. That to me is being a human being more than just a woman. Hanna, I’m really looking forward to doing because I want to find a much deeper arc to her. One of the looming concepts for me is the idea that everybody has the one that got away, and I definitely think there’s a lot more to it. I think Hanna and Danilo are very dynamic people, and you don’t have to get to old age to have regrets. You can still be in the middle of life and still question whether you’ve made the right decisions. The Merry Widow is so luscious and frothy, but it’s got something quite deep to it and I’m looking forward to finding that. The froth is going to be easy, the great waltzes, that’s going to be fab, but I’m going to be searching and searching for all the unsaid things. This is what I love about singing – finding complexity and not basing characters on one archetype.
How will it feel returning to Australia?
It’s my debut with Opera Australia – I’ve never done an operatic role here – and I’m so excited. I met some of the singers when I came out to sing with the Australian Chamber Orchestra. I always look forward to coming back, and to working with all these wonderful people. We’re going to put on quite the show and it’s quite the schedule – like Broadway style – but it will be my chance to show what I can do theatrically.
Danielle de Niese is in Opera Australia’s The Merry Widow at Arts Centre Melbourne from November 15 – 25, and then at Sydney Opera House from January 2 – February 3.