Operatic Diva Known for 'Carmen' Brings a Listening Ear to Her Art

Mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves values diverse, challenging roles

With the Boston Pops Orchestra filling the stage behind her, Denyce Graves mirrors the audience's stillness. The focal point, ours and hers, is a voice - a rich mezzo-soprano that communicates familiar emotions even though it is wrapped around a language foreign to most of us.

In contrast, the movement Graves brings to her next piece gives us a taste of the spicy attitude of Carmen, the title role in Georges Bizet's classic opera. Her portrayal of the cunning gypsy in opera houses as far apart as Buenos Aires and London, Vienna and San Francisco, has garnered elaborate praise.

The variety of styles, which PBS viewers will have a chance to see in the televised "Evening at the Pops" concert July 29, comes from Graves's conscious decision to be "an eternal student," to continually strengthen her technical abilities in order to expand her repertoire.

But it is the little, day-to-day choices and moments, not just the the gift of a beautiful voice and the hours of practice, that determine her repertoire - both for singing and for living.

Before leaving Boston for the next stop in her near-constant touring schedule, Graves paused for an interview.

Expect to succeed

What became a career of singing started with listening:

*Listening to her mother, Dorothy Graves Kenner, who raised her three children on her own after their father left. She insisted that they were special and monitored their activities so they would expect to succeed despite poor and violence-prone surroundings in Washington.

*Listening to a recording of Leontyne Price that her friend discovered at their performing-arts high school. "Someday we'll be like her," they said to each other in reverent amazement.

*Listening to herself, to an inner conviction that carried her through jobs at grocery stores and hotels so she could study at Oberlin College in Ohio and the New England Conservatory in Boston.

And now, even though she has played opposite Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras and has been called one of "the singers most likely to be [an] operatic superstar of the 21st century," Graves continues to listen to herself with a critical ear and to her "circle of support" - voice teachers, managers, publicists, family - with a humble one.

Because of the tremendous competition, "you've gotta really work very hard and find out what is your thing ... the qualities that are distinctive to your artistry," she explains.

The payoff is most evident to people who, like Graves, love to listen. Boston Pops conductor Keith Lockhart says of her voice, "It seems to come from her feet."

While opera may still have a reputation for being over many people's heads, or tastes, Lockhart says it has "experienced a renaissance in the last 10 or 15 years." He attributes this to opera's dramatic, visual elements. "It is so heart-on-its-sleeve ... even people ... who don't understand [the language it is sung in] nevertheless respond to the passions that are presented on the stage."

Opera singers have also been making themselves available to wider audiences by "crossing over" into better-known songs and popular events.

"I don't think you do it as a cheap thing thrown to the masses," Lockhart says. "I think you do it to show ... versatility."

Whether she's singing Cole Porter or Verdi, whether in English, German, Italian, or French, for Graves it always circles back to being willing to be guided. "I know that there is a supreme power that has a major hand in this thing ... it's a matter of awareness."

She leans forward and her eyes take on an extra measure of light as she recounts a recent example. "I was walking down Newbury Street [in Boston] with my husband. It was a beautiful night.... As we walked by there was a man thumbing through music that he [had just] found in a trash can, and he looked at us and he said, 'Are you interested in this?' [These were] fantastic scores, operatic scores, that I wouldn't know about because I wouldn't have looked in the trash can."

Many factors influence whether Graves accepts a particular engagement, but she looks for roles "that interest me, that move me ... that are musically challenging." While she's booked to play Carmen for several more years, she has her eye on the roles of Charlotte in "Werther" (a Massenet opera based on a Goethe novel) and Blanche in "Dialogues des Carmelites" (composed by Poulenc, set in the French Revolution).

"These are real suppressed women.... Blanche is in a convent, becoming one of the Carmelite nuns, a woman who is absolutely obsessed by fear. And in the end she has to find the courage to walk through the guillotine.... There's such a distance of travel for these characters."

Remembering what it was like to grow up being teased for listening to "white folks' " music, Graves is conscious of being something of a role model. For African-American youths especially, "the real gift is that it's happening for me and they can see a face that they can relate to, just like with me and Leontyne Price.... Here was this black woman who had, you know 'made it' in our opinion, and she was someone that we could look up to and say, if she did it, we could do it."

Graves is well aware of the reputation operatic divas have for throwing temper tantrums. "I defend a lot of that," she says, sitting up straighter, her tone all business. The work of an opera singer, she says, "is very intense and engaging, something requiring your complete attention.... Some people are just throwing tantrums, but some of it is legitimate, because you get nervous. You know how it is when you work with incompetent people.... There are some people who pull, take energy from you. It makes my job twice as hard because I've got to carry the whole show."

On the road

Her husband, David Perry, spends time with her wherever she is, sometimes playing classical guitar in her dressing room to help her relax before a performance. He also manages things at their Leesburg, Va., home, where he runs a guitar import business.

"My husband is a rock in this whole crazy turbulence of a career," Graves says emphatically.

And to refuel for high-pressure settings, there's nothing like doing a gig in a church in a "teeny tiny Podunk town." For Graves, the pleasure's the same, or even greater.

"The people, you could eat them with a spoon, their hearts are just right out here for you. Some of them can't sing, God bless 'em all, but [they're] people just filled with joy who energize you."

*Performances for Graves include roles in 'Carmen' at Arena di Verona, Verona, Italy, July 26; 'La Forza del Destino' with Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus, New York, Aug. 30-Sept. 5; and 'The Rake's Progress' at Theatre Musical de Paris, Paris, Sept. 28 and 30 and Oct. 3, 7, 9, and 12.

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