Taking Notes from Denyce Graves
Denyce Graves defines the word diva. The mezzo-soprano has electrified audiences all over the world with her sultry interpretations of the title role of Carmen in the opera by Georges Bizet. She's on the September 2001 cover of Opera News. She's got a new PBS documentary in addition to her Christmas special; a 60 Minutes profile; and some very special friends at Sesame Street. She's both quirky superstar and warm, friendly around-the-way girl. And now, she's even got her own fragrance. There's nothing not to like - or envy - about Denyce Graves.
Graves favors a relentless schedule
Best known as Carmen and as Dalila in Camille Saint-Saens's Samson et Dalila, Graves counts 20 opera roles in her repertoire. Since her professional debut in the late 1980s, she's performed at many of the world's great opera houses, including New York's Metropolitan Opera ("the Met").
Graves's ambitious 2001 season includes four operas, plus numerous recitals and concerts. She held the president and the nation spellbound during her performance of "America the Beautiful" at the memorial service at the National Cathedral in Washington after the September 11 terrorist attacks.
Her most exciting fall 2001 project is a Latin CD with artists including Eliane Elias, Pablo Ziegler, Jose Maria Vitier, and Chucho Valdez. "I'm able to spread my wings creatively," she said. "This project is the one I'm most proud of so far."
Small accommodations for a physically demanding job
Opera singers travel constantly, packing everything they need to create a home away from home - humidifier, mattress pad, sage.
Sage? "When I arrive at a hotel," Graves said, "The first thing I do is bless the room. I burn sage and bless all the corners of the room and ask God to bless the person who was here before me. I do this to prepare a space for myself."
Most indulgences remind weary performers of familiar comforts, reduce stress, help them sleep, and - first and foremost - protect the voice.
"Sleep heals the voice like nothing else," said Graves, who lost most of the 2000-2001 season to medical problems. Another singer's habit is to drink lots of water - at room temperature, without ice - to keep the vocal chords moist. Graves also prefers rooms without air conditioning.
On the day of a performance, after a workout and a good lunch, Graves said, "I arrive at the theater three hours before the performance to warm up in peace and get settled." Most visitors are turned away during these preparations; and allergies prevent her from accepting certain types of flowers.
When she performed the role of Amneris in Giuseppe Verdi's Aida in Cincinnati a few years ago, she was served a steak backstage every night before Act IV. "Act IV happens at the end of the evening when my energy is down. It's killer."
It's worth being a little "high maintenance" to keep energy levels up. One year Graves had three days off the entire year. "It was the sweetest three days ever," she said.
They can send a man to the moon...
Not all venues know what they're getting into when they hire a first-tier opera singer, whose fees can run into high-five figures for a concert series. In August, Graves sang at a scheduled shuttle launch at NASA in Florida. "Their job is sending people into space," she said. "They don't have the knowledge or the wherewithal to handle a singer."
As Graves warmed up in an office that served as a makeshift dressing room, workers asked her to keep the noise down. Later, other needs - an iron; a place to do her makeup; a bathroom - also taxed the aeronautical facility, where flight suits are a much more common sight than ball gowns.
"That's what the years in the conservatory are for," she said. "Technique is about learning to sing well under the craziest of circumstances."
Her own fragrance: the diva equivalent of an action figure
For the holiday 2001 season, Graves is introducing Music by Denyce Graves, "a fragrance for women who know that beautiful music is a state of mind." It's a scent by Anne Gottlieb, one of the great "noses" (cKone, Jadore, Dolce Vita, 212), whom Graves met at a fashion industry event in New York. "We were getting ready for a photoshoot, chatting, getting our nails done, and she said a certain fragrance had a 'low note' in it. I asked her about it and she said a fragrance is a pile of 'notes': high lotes, low notes."
Graves said Gottlieb told her, "Wouldn't it be interesting to do a study of musical notes to perfume notes? Let's contact some beauty editors and do your fragrance."
The fragrance is based on things that make Graves feel beautiful or comfortable - memories of her mother wearing Jean Nate in the 1970s plus "the smell of the straightening comb when you're getting your hair done for church" and "the smell of my husband's guitar."
The "romance card" inside the packaging includes a mini-disk on which Graves sings four standards - "Blues in the Night," "How Do You Keep the Music Playing," "Just You," and of course "Habanera," the most recognized aria from Carmen.
"I just want to be present"
The moment an opera singer arrives is the moment of his or her Met debut. Graves debuted in the role of Carmen in the 1995-1996 season. Stepping out on the legendary stage, she said, "I had one prayer: 'God, I just want to be present. I don't want to miss this.' It was a dream of mine for many many years: to be doing something I absolutely love."
Graves's mother and about 200 others from her home church in Washington, D.C. traveled to New York by bus for the debut. "Just looking out and seeing all those brown faces - I thought, 'I'm their daughter'."
"What is not you will shed away"
"Each person in this business deserves to be there," Graves said. "They don't pass out careers. This takes skill and practice and study; it's harder even than being an actress. I still go to voice lessons, I still think, 'When am I going to learn to do this?'."
For aspiring opera singers, Graves offers this advice: "Get a good teacher. Then surround yourself with music of all kinds. See what moves you - just feel it, hear it, take it all in. Listen with your heart as well as your ears. What is not you will shed away."
So if you have the "pipes" and the determination, and a little bit of a diva streak, practice your scales and arpeggios, order room service...and dream on!