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Still Doing it Right: An Interview with Denyce Graves

On January 28, Florida Grand Opera’s production of Eugene Onegin opens at the Adrienne Arsht Auditorium in Miami. It’s the first time in seventeen seasons that the company has presented Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece. Onegin happens to be one of the operas I love most. There isn’t a gauche, overstated or dramatically cheap moment in it, and I still marvel at the ways in which Tchaikovsky created such a powerful piece about emotional risk, embracing disappointment, and learning to live with compromise.

For me, Florida Grand Opera’s Eugene Onegin is enormously significant on a personal level as well. It marks the first production I have worked on as the company’s new Public Relations Manager. In the spring of 2016, I was unexpectedly laid off by Opera News, where I was the magazine’s longtime features editor. After thirty-four years in New York, I moved to Miami on January 4 to start the new job. The work I’m doing at Florida Grand Opera is demanding and exciting. Best of all, it feels terribly vital in these challenging times for the arts.

FGO’s Eugene Onegin is also important for me because its cast features the acclaimed American mezzo Denyce Graves, playing Tatyana’s devoted and world-weary nurse, Filippyevna. Graves was reporting for rehearsals on the same week she was honored in D.C. with the Washington Performing Arts’s Ambassador of the Arts Award; past honorees include Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Jessye Norman. Having Graves in the cast of Onegin provides a reassuring connection to my professional past.

I have seen Graves only occasionally since the spring of 2001, when I interviewed her for a cover story in Opera News. It was called “Diva, Inc.,” and it took place at a time when she was first-call Carmen around the world. Already she was expressing a burning desire to be known for other things besides Carmen and Dalila. In the Opera News article I wrote, “She’s aware that there may be a subtle element of racism lurking behind presenters’ tendency to pigeonhole her in sexy roles—i.e., the glam black chick can only play wild things.” Graves expressed a desire to sing Dorabella or Madame Flora in Menotti’s The Medium, but there were no takers at the time.

What I remember best about Graves during our two interviews for the Opera News story is her intense professionalism. She was punctual, prepared, concerned that everything be done just right. In Leesburg, Virginia, where she was living at the time, she laid out a spectacular lunch of gumbo and red velvet cake, and our conversation sprawled out all afternoon long. I remember thinking that it was one of the most stimulating and satisfying interviews I had done up to that time.

Executives at Florida Grand Opera affirm that Graves’s professionalism is undimmed. “We were thrilled that Ms. Graves was interested in joining us for this production of Eugene Onegin,” says Susan T. Danis, FGO’s general director and CEO. “She has been a favorite of FGO for over a decade. To have such an amazing artist playing Filippyevna is an honor.” Philip Pierce, director of artistic administration at Florida Grand Opera, adds, “Having her participate in this production has been an inspiration to her colleagues, and especially to our Young Artists. For them, having the opportunity to witness firsthand the incredible discipline of a singer at the top of the field is an eye-opening experience as to the high standards they must impose on themselves. She’s a performer we never had to worry about: returning from a trip from New York, she emailed us as she was boarding her plane, and she emailed us when she landed in Miami, making sure any potential shred of doubt vanished as to her presence at the evening rehearsals.”

I look back at my 2001 interview with Graves with a certain wistfulness. In only a few months following our conversation, the entire world was going to change in the most sobering way imaginable. I reminded her of that this month, when we spoke on the phone the day before her Onegin opening. “I’m not sure I even realized what freedom was until after that,” she said. “We used to go to the airport and wait across from the gate for the people we were meeting. We didn’t even know that was a freedom. And now travel itself has gotten to be so unbelievable costly, in mind, body, and spirit. I’m sure that everyone reflects in this way. I was just thinking yesterday how the world has changed, and it’s expanded, how America is a very different place from what it was when we were growing up. The American Dream, even. It’s all quite different from what we grow up with.”

She spoke of her own process of growing older and moving forward in her career. “It’s important to be able to bend in order to stay young,” she said. “You have to keep your mind malleable, and these ideas we grew up with are changing all the time. I was thinking, ‘My goodness—what we’ve seen in this lifetime, and how grateful I am just to be here. To be a witness to all this going on.”

For a few years, Graves has been sensibly making the transition to character roles. She gives great credit to her manager, Markus Beam. “He’s a real singer, first of all,” says Graves. “He was actually out there doing it, and he understands what that’s like. He brings to the table a real experience and awareness of what it’s like to be having a singing career. So I have someone who I feel is in my corner and bringing interesting projects to the table.” (One of the first things Beam brought was Erda, which Graves loved singing.) She’s also doing a great deal of new music, including Terence Blanchard and Michael Cristofer’s Champion, coming up at Washington National Opera, and Daniel Sonenberg, Daniel Nester and Mark Campbell’s The Summer King, at Pittsburgh Opera.

At the dress rehearsal for Florida Grand’s Onegin, I sat up in my seat the moment Graves sang her first lines as Filippyevna. The voice is deeper, bigger—it seemed to glow, like amber. “It has changed, for sure,” she said. “It’s gotten richer, and the new plateaus and certain things are easier, and certain things I do better now. All of the stuff changes—as we do.” She is quite matter-of-fact about transitioning to older roles: “I think part of the trick is staying in the game, and staying in condition so that you have the opportunity to have a broader range of what you can do and how people think of you. I started out with a lot of Carmens and Dalilas, and then the last few years, I’ve done mothers and grandmothers. I have The Old Lady in Candide coming up in several different houses. Sometimes I think that part of it is accelerating too fast! But I think I’ve been very fortunate in being able to learn a lot about myself and what I’m capable of doing, and how quickly I’m capable of putting things together. I have enjoyed meeting that part of myself.”

There’s no question that ageism is a malignant presence in the music industry. Too many agents and producers have come to dismiss experience and authority in favor of going the younger-and-cheaper route. “The fact is,” says Graves, “We do get better. There are places around the world where age is respected. Some cultures in Africa really value and prize more mature, experienced beings. I remember when I was doing my apprenticeship at Houston Grand Opera, I was working with Elena Nikolaidi. She was probably in her eighties. And she would, at some point in the session, put her head in her hands and say, ‘If I could only sing now. Because now I know what I’m doing. At the time, I was worrying and trying to get if figured out. I really understand it now.’ I don’t think I’m there yet, but there is a certain wisdom that comes from experience and trial and error that allows us to ripen and get better.”

For tickets to Eugene Onegin, go to www.fgo.org.

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3 Comments

  1. Thank you Brian Kellow.!I love Denyse Graves and am so happy to heAR OF HER SINGING IN EUGENE ONEGIN—.LUCKY FLORIDIANS1 A GREAT SINGER IN A GREAT OPERA!WHO COULD ASK FOR ANYTHING MORE!?

  2. Is it only a coincidence that in the same paragraph where you report that Denyce is to sing Bernstein, you liken her voice to amber?

    Great post, Brian.

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