Sunday, July 09, 2000

Diva driven by faith

From humble beginnings, Denyce Graves has evolved into opera's brightest star

By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Denyce Graves
(Michael E. Keating photo)
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        Before she became celebrated as the world's hottest Carmen, before her Metropolitan Opera debut, before her voluptuous glamour shots, Denyce Graves was the middle child of a single mom.

        “I was the one who was the most shy, the one who was always clinging behind her skirt,” says the mezzo-soprano, who grew up in an urban neighborhood in Washington, D.C.

        “The greatest gift my mom gave us was a real sense of imagination. When she would read us stories, she would never finish them. She would say, "OK Denyce, finish the story. How does it end?'”

        Ms. Graves' current chapter includes major operatic roles at the Met in New York, Washington Opera, Paris' Bastille Opera, Italy's La Scala and the Royal Opera Covent Garden in London. At a time when classical music recording contracts are rare, she has an exclusive contract with RCA Red Seal, which in September released an album of her favorite opera arias, Voce di Donna.

        When she sweeps into a room between rehearsals for a new role — Amneris in Cincinnati Opera's Aida — it is hard to believe she wasn't always destined to be a diva. She moves gracefully in a flowing skirt and summer top, a Tiffany silver heart glinting around her neck.

  •What: Cincinnati Opera's Aida, Mario Corradi, director; Edoardo Muller, conductor; soprano Hasmik Papian (Aida); mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves (Amneris); tenor Gabriel Sade (Radames); baritone Donnie Ray Albert (Amonasro); bass Ronnie Johansen (Ramfis); Bass David Michael (King of Egypt); Adrienne Danrich (the High Priestess); tenor Scott Piper (A Messenger). Victoria Morgan, choreographer; Wolfram Skalicki, designer; Thomas C. Hase, lighting.
  • When: 8 p.m. Friday, July 19 and 22.
  • Where: Music Hall.
  • Tickets: $12-$85 (Good seats available for Friday's performance; limited seats available July 19 and 22). 241-2742.
  • CD signing: 1 p.m. today, Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Rookwood Pavilion, Norwood. 396-8960.
        “I've wanted to begin to approach some of the Verdi repertoire slowly,” she says, explaining why she chose Cincinnati Opera to debut her first Amneris.

        “Nic Muni (artistic director) has a great reputation in the business, in terms of being very imaginative and innovative. I thought that it was the perfect venue, you know? Because it's a great place to get your feet wet.”

        Her voice is deep and resonant, a hint of the velvety mezzo for which she is hailed. She has strikingly beautiful looks and knows how to use them.

        “The first thing about Denyce is how she combines a very high level of singing, a high level of acting, and a beautiful visual presence,” Mr. Muni says. “That combination of all three of those aspects is what makes her unusual and a real star.”

        She is also very much a star of the 21st century — she even has a Web site,

        “My husband has been after me to get a Palm Pilot,” she says, swinging her large handbag onto the table, and turning off her cell phone. “My Casio died with all my information in it, and every number in the whole wide world that I have was lost!”

        Ms. Graves is in constant touch with her husband, David Perry, a guitarist and lutenist, who often travels with her and their dog. He updates her Web site and produced her 1997 PBS special, Denyce Graves: A Cathedral Christmas, two documentaries and two CDs under their corporation, Carmen Productions.

        Where is home? She smiles a kittenish smile, her eyes squinting. “Where is home! That's Leesburg, Va.,” she says.

        She has sung Carmen opposite Jose Carreras and Delila (Samson et Delila) opposite Placido Domingo. Among her four opera recordings, she has recorded Rigoletto with Luciano Pavarotti, under James Levine and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.

        But Amneris presents a unique challenge, she says.

        “With Verdi, it's a complete commitment. It involves your whole body. You cannot cheat. There's no place to hang out,” she says. “You really have to pace yourself. ... The fourth act really separates the little girls from the women.”

American dream
        Her rise to stardom is the true American dream, the stuff of real-life profiles of the kind that won 60 Minutes an Emmy.

        When she performs concerts, Ms. Graves often visits local schools to conduct master classes and speak to students. Music education, she says, is something she is passionate about because, “I was a girl who grew up in the inner city, and music changed, absolutely, the course of my life.”

        Ms. Graves grew up in a tough neighborhood in Southwest Washington, D.C., near a sewage treatment plant. Her father abandoned the family when her mother was pregnant with Denyce's younger sister. Dorothy Graves-Kenner (her name from a second marriage) struggled to support her children as a clerk-typist, while instilling in them a strong work ethic and a deep devotion to religion.

        “Since she was always working, my mother was very conscious of the amount of free time that we had on our hands,” Ms. Graves says. “In addition to our school work, she would assign us different projects. Each night of the week was designated for something.”

        Monday was sewing night, where they learned to sew doll clothes and repair jeans; Tuesday was book report night; and Thursday night was music night.

        The family had a singing group, the Inspirational Children of God, that toured churches singing gospel music. Because her older brother, Andre, had a beautiful singing voice, he usually took the solos.

        “But in my mother's effort to rid me of my shyness, when we would arrive at church, my mother would say, OK Denyce, now you're going to sing a solo,” she recalls. “She put me on the spot — and just planted some little tiny seed.”

        Every day before her mother left for work, the family made a prayer circle.

        “She really believed that we were incredible children, and that all of us had been touched by God in some way,” she says. “We believed that whatever we dreamed of was a possibility. We had very very little, but we were rich in so many other things.”

Her guardian angel
        If church choirs began her music education, the public schools nurtured it. The most influential person in Ms. Graves' musical life was her school music teacher, Judith Grove, her “guardian angel” who was with her from kindergarten through high school. She gave young Denyce solos in the elementary school choir. In junior high, she made sure that Denyce joined the All-City Chorus, personally taking her to the Saturday rehearsals.

        When she was ready for high school, Ms. Grove told her about Duke Ellington School for the Performing Arts, and helped her fill out the application. Ms. Grove subsequently became the school's principal.

        “When I was accepted into this school, it was a whole other world,” Ms. Graves says. “I come from a deeply religious background, and gospel music was the only music that was allowed in our home. It was a real explosion of all these different types of musical genres. I was in a haven, and I was so enthusiastic about going to school.”

        One day, a friend told her to come listen to a record she had found of Mississippi-born opera star Leontyne Price.

        “We listened to that recording over and over until they kicked us out of the library. Just seeing her gave us so much hope,” she says. “We certainly learned about (the African-American contralto) Marian Anderson when we were young, but Leontyne Price was there, having a career. It was more tangible, someone we could see, and say, if she did this, we could do this.”

        In college at Ohio's Oberlin Conservatory, Ms. Graves sang in her first opera, Eros and Psyche, commissioned for the school's sesquicentennial.

        “I loved my time there, even though in many ways it was very oppressive,” she says. “I was very poor. I had three jobs; it was hard to balance work with study, and I never knew from one semester to the next if I was going to be there.”

        Ms. Grove stepped in again. “I gave a recital at her church and everybody showed up, and the church paid for another year at school,” she says. “That's exactly what it takes, somebody to believe in you, and believe hard enough that you begin to believe it as well.”

Making up for lost time
        She followed her Oberlin teacher, Helen Hodam, to Boston's New England Conservatory, where she continued to work her way through school: on the night shift at the Omni Hotel, bagging groceries, working at Faneuil Hall Marketplace. Although she slept little, in 1988, she won the Metropolitan Opera Regional Auditions.

        It was a short-lived victory. Suddenly, she lost her voice.

        “Lost it. I mean, lost it. I could speak, but I was in silence for a long time,” she says. Eleven doctors were stumped. She had to cancel her first contract with Wolf Trap Opera. She missed out on the Met's Young Artist program.

        “At the time, I thought I was going to die,” she says.

        Finally a doctor diagnosed a treatable thyroid problem. “It took many months of taking medication and being quiet. I had to rebuild,” she says. She became a secretary — until Houston Grand Opera lured her to their apprenticeship program.

        In 1989, another mentor stepped in: superstar tenor Placido Domingo. “We were doing (Verdi's) Otello, I was singing Emilia, and I was so nervous. The first day, when I heard he was coming to rehearsal, I couldn't sleep. I was a mess,” she says. Shortly after, Mr. Domingo invited her to sing a concert with him; since then, they have collaborated many times.

        Now she's making up for lost time. Her calendar is jammed through 2003. Even her vacation month of August is being whittled away by recordings.

        But she has not forgotten where she came from, and the women who helped her, believed in her, from the beginning.

        “At my Met debut, an old black lady came backstage, and just held my hand and started crying. I didn't know her, but I understood her. They have put their heart and their hopes and their dreams into their children, and I am in some way their daughter,” she says.

        “I know that I don't stand by myself.”


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