Danielle de Niese- London Times Feature!!



Dec 13th, 2016 and written by Richard Morrison

The soprano Danielle de Niese is also lady of the manor at Glyndebourne. That doesn’t mean she’ll stop trying to be the best. If you want an insider’s view of staging an opera at Glyndebourne, who better to provide it than Mrs Glyndebourne herself? Which is why Danielle de Niese, who married Glyndebourne’s chairman, Gus Christie, seven years ago this month, is not only starring in the Glyndebourne production of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville being shown on BBC Four on Sunday, but also fronting an hour-long documentary about making the show. “The truth is I love being on camera,” says the 37-year-old soprano. It’s hardly the year’s most surprising revelation. “I had a TV show when I was a kid,” she elaborates, her immaculately attired frame arrayed like Cleopatra on a sea of cushions in the swish Jumeirah Hotel in London. “Although I’m first and foremost a singer, I’m also a connector. I love connecting people to what I do, though I don’t necessarily want them to know what I had for breakfast.”

She giggles. “Having said that, I do remember tweeting a fabulous oatmeal that I once made.” So to what will she be connecting BBC Four viewers? The surprising answer, it seems, is buttons. “Whereas previous backstage-at-the-opera documentaries might have gone, ‘Here’s the costume shop and here’s where 15 seamstresses are sewing the buttons on,’ I will be saying, ‘Why did we choose this colour button and what is it about that helps me inform my character?’ From there we get into discussing the music and the way we stage it.”

I wonder if opera still needs that explanation. With its comedy, romance and scintillating music, can’t Rossini’s Barber speak for itself? “Oh, the old misconceptions are still around,” de Niese replies. “People say to me, ‘How would I ever understand opera? It’s in a foreign language.’ They don’t know we’ve had surtitles for decades. Breaking down barriers is one reason why I love doing performances in alternative spaces.”

Even more alternative than a country house in Sussex? “I’m talking about the Bermondsey Street Tunnel and the 100 Club in Oxford Street,” she says. “The club was amazing: low-ceilinged and sweaty. I thought, ‘What on earth are Dowland and Bizet and Handel going to sound like here and what will these people think of it?’ It was wonderful, though. A whole bunch of guys who heard me there came to my Barbican concert afterwards.”

Opera singing is so hard, then you get torn to shreds by the critics Has she felt a special obligation to be opera’s ambassador to the masses since marrying into the Christie family, who have been running opera festivals on their Glyndebourne estate for 82 years? “I’ve always put that responsibility on myself anyway,” she says. “I had my first classical voice lessons when I was eight, and from that moment I remember thinking, ‘First I’m going to become a famous opera singer and then I’m going to build a music school for all the poor children.’ I had that in my zone already.” That sounds as if she had a remarkably developed social conscience for an eight-year-old. “My parents were very instrumental in giving us the feeling that if you get good you must give good back. And I’ve always had this weird feeling that if you are doing something that’s truly good, you get rewarded somewhere else. Like a karma thing. That’s why I work with a lot of charities.”

Does she regard her position at Glyndebourne as part of her good work? “Well, just running the house is a day-to-day labour of love,” she says. “I want to be there with Gus, of course, but it does take up time — being a wife, being a mother, entertaining in the summer, doing the pheasant shoots in the winter.”

The pheasant shoots? “Yes, I’ve taken on all those British traditional things,” she says. Didn’t that come as a culture-shock to a woman of Dutch and Sri Lankan heritage, raised in Australia and America? “Oh, people ask me all the time, ‘Do you like cricket? What about cucumber sandwiches? And crumpets?' For heaven’s sake, I’m a Commonwealth girl! I come from cricket and crumpets.”

Her mixed background, she says, has never been an issue in her career. “It’s reflective of our multicultural times that someone like me is connected to a very British institution and doing classical music. I’m proud to be that person, and feel fortunate that whatever I’ve been able to offer as a performer has always seemed to transcend any boundaries that other people might set. Even as a child I was never aware of anything that might impede me. God knows what it might be like in the future — whether someone with my background and passport would even be able to get into Britain.”

Surely one reason why, as a child, she was never “impeded” was that she had such a precocious talent. “Well, I remember an old family photo of me as a very young girl holding forth in the kitchen, in my element, no fear, no shyness,” she says. “I think my parents picked up on that and got me performing very young — but they also instilled in me a huge work ethic. Besides singing lessons I was doing piano and theory and counterpoint from seven. I was singing Schoenberg at 15.” People ask me all the time, ‘Do you like cricket? And crumpets?’

How come she didn’t burn out — the fate of many prodigies who are pushed hard in their childhood? “Because I had a lot of people saying no for me. I still do. I remember being offered an Aida when I was 22. You know the sort of thing, ‘Zeffirelli’s looking . . . with your looks you’d be perfect.’ Luckily I had a fantastic manager, Alec Treuhaft, who took me on at 17. He also managed Renée Fleming, Susan Graham and Deborah Voigt — I was his only young person. He steered me so well. “I had pop opportunities as well, and I did musical theatre — Les Misérables on Broadway. I was even scouted for a soap opera. Alec said to me, ‘Danni, you could do a soap opera for four years, come back and still be the youngest soprano on the block.’ I couldn’t do it! You know when you’ve found the thing you love above all else. Mine was opera singing.”

Does she feel the same now? “Trust me, there are times when I think privately: why do I go back to the lions’ den?” she says. “Opera singing is so hard, and then you get torn to shreds by the critics — but I’m in this for the long haul.”

One indication of that determination came last year when she and Christie had their first child, bucolically named Bacchus (Christie also has four sons from his first marriage). Three weeks after giving birth de Niese was back in rehearsal at Glyndebourne, and two months later she was singing the leads in both halves of a Ravel double-bill: the enfant in L’enfant et les sortilèges and the indefatigably adulterous Concepción in L’heure espagnole.

“It was totally insane, but I was desperate to do it — partly because if I’m not on stage I get itchy and partly because if you disappear to have a kid people think you are going away for years. Plus everyone knows who my husband is, so I wasn’t exactly having a baby under the radar.” It must have felt risky, though. “Very. For one thing, I lost my voice completely in pregnancy. It was a test of faith for me and the people around me. You had to accept that I would make only tiny progress, vocally, each day.”

Surely the other risk was singing such contrasting parts. “Yes, even Laurent [Pelly, the director] said, ‘I see you as Concepción, but l’enfant? Je ne sais pas.’ But I said to everyone, I want my Meryl Streep moment. Concepción will give people what they think I am — sexy, sassy, blah, blah, blah — but for L’enfant I want Danni to disappear. That’s the mark of an actor. We worked so hard to turn me into a boy, with make-up and body-language, that even my own guests didn’t know it was me.”

Her voice was “totally changing”, she says, even before pregnancy. That, she believes, has opened out..

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