She spices up opera

When Denyce Graves discovered a record of the great soprano Leontyne Price at her high school in Washington, D.C., it left an indelible mark.

"A girlfriend of mine found it in the listening library.... We cut all our classes and sat there all day listening, amazed."

Soon she was studying with top professionals like the late legendary Greek-American mezzo-soprano teacher Elena Nikolaidi.

Following a much-praised aria album "Voce di Donna" (BMG), her latest work, "The Lost Days" (RCA Red Seal) features the African-American mezzo-soprano performing with such Latin music stars as Chucho Valdés and Pablo Ziegler.

Renowned in the title roles of operas like Bizet's "Carmen" (which she recently sang at New York's Metropolitan Opera) and Saint-Saens's "Samson et Dalila," Graves is branching out to wider repertory in operas such as Donizetti's romantic "La Favorita," Offenbach's fizzy "La Périchole," and Bartok's tragic "Duke Bluebeard's Castle."

As befits an opera superstar, Graves is the subject of a PBS documentary to be aired this fall, and is launching personalized perfume and jewelry lines later this year. What is the basis for the widespread fascination with this young artist?

"She is an amazingly beautiful woman, plus she has genuine star quality, the type that 'lights up the stage.' And she's not embarrassed to be a diva," says James Jorden, an opera connoisseur.

Pianist Warren Jones, who accompanied her on "Angels Watching Over Me" (NPR Classics), a disc of spirituals, comments, "I find that the combination of intellect and intuition that Denyce possesses is quite unique, for she is capable of the most refined moments as well as unbridled emotion and expression."

Her fierceness and lack of embarrassment helped her unwavering quest to grow as an artist, striving for new projects and challenges.

Chatting on the phone the morning after her first "Carmen" this season at the Metropolitan Opera, Graves expressed her excitement about working on "The Lost Days." "In older music, you are given a map that tells you how loud or soft you're supposed to sing, an instruction booklet. With new music, you create your own instructions ... it's very liberating."

Nikolaidi "taught me freedom," says Graves of her teacher, who died last year. "I'm not sure I've mastered it, but she symbolized that - singing is difficult and mysterious.... She was a grand lady - and funny. She swore like a sailor and taught me all sorts of Greek swearwords."

Nikolaidi, renowned for her elegance, would also advise Graves on her clothes and hairstyles before recitals, giving the young singer tips on how to move onstage: "She cared about the entire presentation."

Maybe that's why Graves is praised today for offering what Mr. Jorden calls "a package, which very definitely includes the visual element."

Part of the package is jewelry, which Graves considers "an important element of performance." She is designing her own jewelry line with Nazlie Satar, and her personal fragrance, "Music by Denyce Graves" will include citrus elements and woodsy odors, because she loves the smell of her husband's guitar.

But despite these accessory activities, Graves is concentrated on her artistry. A recent high point was at the Los Angeles Opera in Bartok's "Duke Bluebeard's Castle," directed by William Friedkin ("The Exorcist").

Graves explains that unlike other directors, who focus on the music, Mr. Friedkin "worked directly from the text ... he walked around with the libretto and directed from that, giving us a terrific amount of freedom to see what we were going to create.... We all felt freedom because he wasn't stifled by ideas of what opera should be."

A much anticipated future project is a new opera, "Margaret," based on Nobel-Prize-winning author Toni Morrison's novel "Beloved," with music by composer Richard Danielpour and a libretto by Ms. Morrison herself.

Graves says she also would like to expand her repertory to include the title role in Gian Carlo Menotti's melodramatic "The Medium," or Dorabella in Mozart's "Cosi fan tutte."

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