Mezzo - Soprano  Denyce  Graves

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Recognized worldwide as one of today’s most exciting vocal stars, Denyce Graves continues to gather unparalleled popular and critical acclaim in performances on four continents. USA Today identifies her as “an operatic superstar of the 21st Century,” and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution exclaims, “if the human voice has the power to move you, you will be touched by Denyce Graves.”

graves Her career has taken her to the world’s great opera houses and concert halls. The combination of her expressive, rich vocalism, elegant stage presence, and exciting theatrical abilities allows her to pursue a wide breadth of operatic portrayals and to delight audiences in concert and recital appearances. Denyce Graves has become particularly well-known to operatic audiences for her portrayals of the title roles in Carmen and Samson et Dalila. These signature roles have brought Graves to the Metropolitan Opera, Vienna Staatsoper, Royal Opera, Covent Garden, San Francisco Opera, Opéra National de Paris, Lyric Opera of Chicago, The Washington Opera, Bayerische Staatsoper, Arena di Verona, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Opernhaus Zürich, Teatro Real in Madrid, Houston Grand Opera, Dallas Opera, Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, Los Angeles Opera, and the Festival Maggio Musicale in Florence.

Graves’s 2012-13 season included two world premieres; she created the roles of Mrs. Miller in Minnesota Opera’s New Works Initiative commission of Doubt composed by Douglas J. Cuomo, and directed by Kevin Newbury, and of Emelda in Champion by Terence Blanchard at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis. The season also marked two role debuts for Graves as Herodias in Strauss’s Salome at Palm Beach Opera, and Katisha in Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado with the Lyric Opera of Kansas City. Graves makes numerous concert and recital performances including at Opera Carolina, Arizona Musicfest, National Philharmonic, San Diego Symphony, and several prestigious universities throughout the nation. As Graves’s dedication to teaching the singers of the next generation continues to be an important part of her career, she currently serves as the Rosa Ponselle Distinguished Faculty Artist at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore.

Denyce Graves made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in the 1995-96 season in the title role of Carmen. She returned the following season to lead the new Franco Zeffirelli production of this work, conducted by James Levine, and she sang the opening night performance of the Metropolitan Opera’s 1997-98 season as Carmen opposite Plácido Domingo. She was seen again that season as Bizet’s gypsy on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera for Domingo’s 30th Anniversary Gala, and she made her debut in Japan as Carmen, opposite the Don José of Roberto Alagna. Graves appeared in a new production of Samson et Dalila opposite Plácido Domingo at the Metropolitan Opera, and she performed Act III of this work opposite Mr. Domingo to open the Met’s season in 2005. She was partnered again with Mr. Domingo in the 1999 season-opening performances of this work for Los Angeles Opera. She was seen as Saint-Saëns’ seductress with Royal Opera, Covent Garden and The Washington Opera, both opposite José Cura – the latter under the baton of Maestro Domingo, as well as with Houston Grand Opera. Her debut in this signature role came in 1992 with the Chicago Symphony at the Ravinia Festival under the direction of James Levine and opposite Mr. Domingo and Sherrill Milnes, and she made a return engagement to the Festival in this same role in 1997.

Graves appears continually in a broad range of repertoire with leading theaters in North America, Europe, and Asia. Highlights have included a Robert Lepage production of The Rake’s Progress at San Francisco Opera,  the title role in Richard Danielpour’s Margaret Garner in the world premiere performances at Michigan Opera Theater with further performances at Cincinnati Opera, Opera Carolina, and the Opera Company of Philadelphia, the role of Charlotte in Werther for Michigan Opera Theater opposite the Werther of Andrea Bocelli in his first staged operatic performances, and Judith in a William Friedkin production of Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle in her return to Los Angeles Opera: she also has sung Judith at the Washington National Opera and for the Dallas Opera. Highlights of the mezzo-soprano’s other recent appearances include Azucena in Il trovatore, Nicklausse in Les contes d’Hoffmann, and Dulcinée in Massenet’s Don Quichotte with The Washington Opera; Giovanna Seymour in a new production of Anna Bolena for Dallas Opera; the title role in La Périchole with the Opera Company of Philadelphia; a rare double-bill of El amor brujo and La vida breve specifically mounted for her by Dallas Opera; Federica in the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Luisa Miller, led by James Levine; and Amneris in Aida with Cincinnati Opera. Graves’s debut with the Théâtre Musical de Paris – Chatelet was as Baba the Turk in a Peter Sellars/Esa-Pekka Salonen production of The Rake’s Progress, and she returned to Covent Garden as Cuniza in Verdi’s Oberto after her debut performances as Carmen. Her debut at Teatro alla Scala was as the High Priestess in La vestale led by Riccardo Muti, and she soon returned as Giulietta in a new production of Les contes d’Hoffmann and as Mère Marie in the Robert Carsen production of Les dialogues des Carmélites. She appeared at Teatro Bellini in Catania in the title role of La favorita, and audiences in Genoa saw her first performances of Charlotte soon after her debut there as Carmen. Her debut in Austria came as Carmen with the Vienna Staatsoper, and she has also been seen in this role with Grand Théâtre de Genève, Genoa’s Teatro Carlo Felice, the Bregenz Festival, and festivals in Macerata, Italy and San Sebastian, Spain. Graves gave her first performances of Adalgisa in Norma for Opernhaus Zürich.

Denyce Graves has worked with leading symphony orchestras and conductors throughout the world in a wide range of repertoire. She has performed with Riccardo Chailly, Myung-Whun Chung, Charles Dutoit, Christoph Eschenbach, James Levine, Zubin Mehta, Lorin Maazel, Kurt Masur, Riccardo Muti, and Mstislav Rostropovich. Graves has appeared with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Boston Symphony Orchestra, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Houston Symphony, Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo, and National Symphony Orchestra among a host of others.

One of the music world’s most sought-after recitalists, Graves combines her expressive vocalism and exceptional gifts for communication with her dynamic stage presence, enriching audiences around the world. Her programs include classical repertoire of German lieder, French mélodie, and English art song, as well as the popular music of Broadway musicals, crossover and jazz together with American spirituals. For her New York recital debut, the New York Times wrote, “[h]er voice is dusky and earthy. She is a strikingly attractive stage presence and a communicative artist who had the audience with her through four encores.”

graves In 2001 Graves gave a series of appearances in response to the tragic events in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Shanksville, Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001. Graves was invited by President Bush to participate in the National Prayer Service in Washington’s National Cathedral in which she sang “America, the Beautiful” and “The Lord’s Prayer.” This event was televised worldwide and was followed by Graves’s appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show in a live musical program of “Healing through Gospel Music.” Graves has since participated in numerous other benefit concerts, and RCA Records released a recording of patriotic songs by Denyce Graves [shown at right], the proceeds of which benefit various groups who have been affected by the events of September 11. Graves recently continued her patriotic activities when she sang for President and Mrs. Bush, among other dignitaries, at “An American Celebration at Ford’s Theatre” to benefit U.S. soldiers in Iraq. This concert was taped for television and aired on the ABC network on July 4, 2005. In 2003 Denyce Graves was appointed as a Cultural Ambassador for the United States, and she now travels around the world under the auspices of the State Department appearing in good-will missions of musical performances, lectures, and seminars. Her first trips in 2003 brought her to Poland, Romania, and Venezuela.

Graves appears regularly on radio and television as a musical performer, celebrity guest, and as the subject of documentaries and other special programming. In 1997 PBS Productions released a video and audio recording titled, Denyce Graves: A Cathedral Christmas, featuring Graves in a program of Christmas music from Washington’s National Cathedral. This celebration of music including chorus and orchestra is shown each year on PBS during the Christmas season. She was seen on the Emmy-award winning BBC special “The Royal Opera House,” highlighting Graves’s debut performances there, and in a program of crossover repertoire with the Boston Pops, which was taped for national television broadcast. In December 1999 Graves participated in a concert given at the Nobel Peace Prize Awards in Oslo, Norway which was televised throughout Europe. As the only classical music artist to be invited for this event, she performed selections from her RCA Red Seal release alongside performances by Sting, Paul Simon, Tina Turner and others. She has been a frequent guest on television shows including Sesame StreetThe Charlie Rose Show, and Larry King Live. In 1996 she was the subject of an Emmy-award winning profile on CBS’s 60 Minutes.

In 1999 Denyce Graves began a relationship with BMG Classics/RCA Red Seal. That same year Voce di Donna, a solo recording of opera arias, was released on RCA Red Seal. The Lost Days, a recording with jazz musicians of Latin songs in the Spanish and Portuguese languages, was released in January 2003. In June 2003 Church was released – this recording, developed by Denyce Graves, brings together African-American divas from various forms of music, all of whom were first exposed to music through their upbringing in church. Participants recorded music of their choice and include Dr. Maya Angelou, Dionne Warwick, En Vogue, Patti LaBelle, and others. Other recordings of Graves include NPR Classics’ release of a recording of spirituals, Angels watching over me, featuring the mezzo-soprano in performance with her frequent partner, Warren Jones and an album of French arias, Héroïnes de l’Opéra romantique Français, with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo under Marc Soustrot. Her full opera recordings include Gran Vestale in La vestale, recorded live from La Scala with Riccardo Muti for Sony Classical; Queen Gertrude in Thomas’s Hamlet for EMI Classics; Maddalena in Rigoletto with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra under James Levine; and Emilia in Otello with Plácido Domingo and the Opéra de Paris, Bastille Orchestra under Myung-Whun Chung, both for Deutsche Grammophon.

Denyce Graves is a native of Washington, D.C., where she attended the Duke Ellington School for the Performing Arts. She continued her education at Oberlin College Conservatory of Music and the New England Conservatory. In 1998, Graves received an honorary doctorate from Oberlin College Conservatory of Music. She was named one of the “50 Leaders of Tomorrow” by Ebony Magazine and was one of Glamour Magazine’s 1997 “Women of the Year.” In 1999 WQXR Radio in New York named her as one of classical music’s “Standard Bearers for the 21st Century.” Denyce Graves has been invited on several occasions to perform in recital at the White House, and she provides many benefit performances for various causes special to her throughout each season.

Denyce Graves has been the recipient of many awards, including the Grand Prix du Concours International de Chant de Paris, the Eleanor Steber Music Award in the Opera Columbus Vocal Competition, and a Jacobson Study Grant from the Richard Tucker Music Foundation. In 1991, she received the Grand Prix Lyrique, awarded once every three years by the Association des amis de l’opéra de Monte-Carlo, and the Marian Anderson Award, presented to her by Miss Anderson.  In addition Graves has received honorary doctorates from Oberlin College, College of Saint Mary and Centre College.

==  Biography [text only] is from the website of the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University  
==  Names in this box, and below, refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD  

Denyce Graves returned to the Ravinia Festival in August of 1997 for Samson and Delilah with the Chicago Symphony, conducted by Christoph Eschenbach.  The other principals were tenor Ben Heppner and baritone Thomas Allen,  Between rehearsals, I had the pleasure of speaking with the mezzo at her hotel.
She had been involved with a busy day, so that is where we pick up the conversation . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   Are there too many demands placed on a rising young mezzo-soprano?

Denyce Graves:   [Thinks a moment]  It’s timing.  For me, that’s the key.

BD:   You’re just embarking on the large part of your career, so you get offered a number of roles.  How do you decide yes, you’ll do this role, or no, you will not do that role?
Graves:   I take a lot of things into consideration.  First of all, is the role vocally and dramatically interesting?  Is it one where I can really showcase myself?  Where is the venue?  What am I coming from before having that engagement?  Who is conducting?  What time of year is it going to be?  Have I sung the role before?  So there are a series of criteria that I check off before accepting an engagement, because I really want to put myself in a position where I know I can do my best work.  You learn those things as you go along, and through trial and error.  You understand what you have to do, and how discerning you have become about engagements.

BD:   Do you leave enough time for a personal life, and also to learn new roles?

Graves:   No!  [Both laugh]  I am becoming much more picky about those things.  This year, for the first time I’ve really scheduled in a lot of relaxation time.  I find that I have to work that in just like engagements, because the pace has just been so fast and furious until now.  Sometimes you suffer, and the art-form can suffer, too.  I’ve seen this on the face of a lot of my colleagues in the beginning.  You can tell when they’re tired, and when they’ve sung too much, and when they need a break, and when they lose their joy for what it is they’re doing.  That excitement has to always be there.  I always like to miss the stage.  I like to be hungry for it, and feel like I can’t wait until I get back out there!  I have to approach an engagement with that type of enthusiasm and anticipation to really be able to give everything that I have.

BD:   You do opera and concerts.  How do you divide your career between those two?

Graves:   Fortunately, about that I’m happy.  I’ve got a lot of opera, a lot of concerts, and more recitals now.  In the beginning there was a lot of opera, and that was wonderful.  I’m an opera singer, but it’s also important vocally, as well as for your mental state to introduce into your career different mediums under the umbrella of Classical Music.  Chamber music requires a different style and a different skill.  The exciting thing about recitals is that you get to absolutely plan everything.  You can be very picky and decide which pieces you want to do, and in which keys you want to do them, and which group you want to have coming next.  You really have an opportunity to orchestrate the entire evening, but it’s a very naked experience.  There are no sets, and no costumes.  There’s nothing to hide behind, so you have to create this atmosphere and the links within a group, one song to the next, so that it makes sense.  So the responsibility is greater with recitals.  It is also a different type of singing.  Having a balance is important.  I know that if you do too much recital music, sometimes you can become very precious with your singing.  With opera you get to just release that, and open up your throat and sing.  You just let it out, and that’s really important.  Depending on the opera, I have found that sometimes you can fall out of line a little bit.  From a vocal standpoint, with recital music I’ve found that you need to be much more
classical in your approach to everything.  It’s a much more refined type of singing, much more intimate, and therefore much more naked.

BD:   Do you like the very close communication with the audience, because you are right there, rather than having a pit in front of you?

Graves:   I like that a lot.  Yes, sometimes it’s a bit nerve-wracking when you realize that the woman in the fifth row has a blue scarf on.  There’s so much detail that you would never notice on the opera stage.  Depending on the size of the theater, a lot of times in an opera house you feel the audience as a collective unit, but you don’t necessarily see that it’s my mom, and there’s my husband, and there’s my first-grade teacher looking at my shoes [laughs].  I find that the stage is a big magnifying glass, so it can be a bit nerve-wracking from that standpoint.

BD:   Can we assume that at these times you enjoy being the center of attention?

Graves:   [Thinks a moment]  I suppose there must be an element of truth in that because that’s what I do, but I really don’t see it that way.  I came to music, and to this profession, because of a pure love for singing.  I’m moved by the smallest things in music, even the street musicians you pass in London and in Paris.  I have an appreciation for all of that, and for them, and for what it is they do, and for that which draws us to this art-form.  So being the center of attention is not the way I’m taking it.  I love to sing, and that means anything.  I find it a very spiritual experience.  I get a profound enjoyment from it, and I feel that it’s the closest I get to God.  It is not always that way, but whether I am singing or not, I feel that same feeling just being part of it, just listening to it, such as when I am in church and hearing the music.  I’m happy to have an opportunity to be able to do something that I really love to do, and then I can somehow be an instrument for which these beautiful emotions are passing through.  I feel them as they go through me, and it’s a real privileged position to be in.  I count myself lucky as far as that’s concerned, and when I see the street musicians, I always stop and acknowledge them.  
There but for the grace of God go I.  I feel a tremendous kinship towards them, and I respect them, and know that it takes a lot of courage to do that.

BD:   Doesn’t it take courage to be on the opera stage?

Graves:   It takes a tremendous amount of courage, but it’s different.  It’s a position of respect.  People come to the theater, and pay exorbitant amounts of money to hear you, and the responsibility is great because of that.  I’m aware of that part of it, but for the most part, people are on your side.  They really do want to have a good time and an incredible experience.  So you have those things in your favor, as opposed to the guy who’s on the street playing in a subway.  It’s very different.  There, maybe people notice you, or maybe they don’t, but I believe that they take it in anyway.

BD:   They come to see you, but the street musician might even be an intrusion?

Graves:   Sure!


:   When you’re on the operatic stage, how much is art and how much is entertainment?

Graves:   They should go hand-in-hand.  I cannot speak for each person, but I know that for myself, as an artist, I try.  I work very diligently.  I always do my homework, and really understand what I’m singing about, and what’s going on.  I work hard to make it the best that it can be on that particular night under whatever circumstances.  I do see it as a collaborative effort of not just myself, but all the instrumentalists, the conductor, and my colleagues who are there.  That’s really music-making if you sit down and work out the details.  Sometimes it can be too Heilige Kunst [holy art], and nobody cares about it that way.  You can go to some recitals, and it’s all very precious, and it’s all very studious, and when it’s over nobody feels anything.  It leaves everybody empty.  So, I really believe that it has to be both.  First of all, the performer has to have a great time, because I can tell when someone is not enjoying what they’re doing.  I don’t think you can fool the public.  They know what’s going on.  They may not have researched it to the depth that we have, but the general message is to communicate, and if you know what’s going on then it’s clear.  We need to enjoy ourselves.  Nobody wants to see us having to work hard.  People are compassionate.  They don
t want to constantly wonder if shes going to make it.  That’s not why people come to the theater.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  You mean, it’s not a singing contest???

Graves:   [Smiles]  Sometimes it is, depending on who you’re working with, but that can also be very exciting in a positive way.  I know that if I’m working with colleagues from whom I get a tremendous amount of support, I feel encouraged by them and inspired by what they’ve just sung, and then I sing better.   There are people who engage you, and who empower you.  Then there are some people who pull away from you, and who can drain you.  That may not always be their fault.  Sometimes it’s just the circumstances.  A colleague may be very ill, or maybe they don’t know the role, or maybe they feel insecure because they
re not up to the part.  There could be a number of reasons, but that’s a difficult position to be in because you’ve got to get through the show.  It’s wonderful when you have a colleague who sings beautifully and challenges you.  Then I feel a type of competitiveness in the most positive way.

BD:   It brings out the best in you?

Graves:   Yes, exactly.

*     *     *     *     *
BD:   Carmen and Delilah are a couple of your big roles.  Do you have a particular fondness for the French language and culture?

Graves:   It would seem that way.  I was thinking the same thing this morning, and I don’t know why that is.  It’s just by chance that this has happened.  Some of the greater repertoire for mezzos seems to be in the French language.  I don’t know why that has been, but it’s really true.  Other than Charlotte, Sapho, Carmen, and Delilah, there’s not a great wealth of repertoire to choose from.  You really have to dig to try to find interesting roles.  That’s what Marilyn Horne did with reviving a lot of the Handel.  Each artist has a responsibility for the direction that their career takes because they can guide that, and it’s in our best interest to do that.  People only know what they see, so if somebody sees me as Carmen, they think that’s it.  So, you have a responsibility to guide their opinions, because a lot of times they can get very fixed on an idea about how you are as an artist if they see you only do one thing.

BD:   The roles that you play seem to be very strong and dominant female characters.  Would you ever rather play one of these fragile little flowers that gets stepped on all the time?

Graves:   Not as a rule, however there are some characters like that which I feel very drawn to.  For example, Blanche in Dialogues of the Carmelites, who’s afraid of her own shadow.  I would add a lot to this woman as a character.  I’d like to explore those things.  This season at the Met I’m doing Baba the Turk [in The Rake
s Progress of Stravinsky].  I’d like to do more pants roles, and just open up myself as an artist.

BD:   Will you play Baba with a beard?

Graves:   I think we will play her with a beard.  I did it once before in Paris, and it was without a beard.  I happen to like facial hair.  I really happen to love it.  [Smiles as the interviewer strokes his own tasteful beard, which can be seen in this photo.]  The women in my family have mustaches, and I mean mustaches, not simply like peach-fuzz.  It’s strong, it’s thick, and they’ve got them, and nobody ever thought badly of them.  [Coming back to the operatic topic]  I don’t know why it has been, but with each conductor that I’ve worked with, when we’ve searched for new projects it always seems to be the French literature.

BD:   Is there any character that you’re singing who is perilously close to the real Denyse Graves?

Graves:   Ha, ha!  Wow, this question could get me in lots of trouble!  [Laughs]  I would say that I find myself in all of these women.

BD:   Yourself, or parts of yourself?

Graves:   Parts of myself, and I use them as role models in my own life.  For example, I would love to have the courage of Carmen, and the strength of Delilah.  I feel it’s not by chance that these women are in my life.  There’s a great lesson for me to be learned through exploring the personalities of these characters.  I really believe that.  So, we shall see!  I even identify with Blanche.

BD:   They add to your life.  Do you add to these characters?

Graves:   I hope so.  I try to do the best I can, but I try always to be as honest and believable as possible.  There are times at the end of the evening that I felt that I was this woman.  There have been times at the end of Carmen that I actually felt like I was killed.  I have felt that those experiences were mine, and I am so rich because of those experiences.  I am glad and grateful for all of them.  So, I would say that each has left her trails and her marks all over me.  With Carmen, I don’t know how much influence I have had in her life, but I think we embody a lot the same characteristics.

BD:   Then do you like getting input from each new stage director?

Graves:   Oh, absolutely.   My eyes and ears are not closed when it comes to that woman, or with anything for that matter.  I love discovering new things about her, and new things about myself.  I challenge myself to see what else there is.  What about doing it this way, and what would that mean?  I find her to be different all the time.  I don’t think she’s one woman.  I don’t think any character is.  I have some colleagues that believe this person is this way, and that way, but I don’t believe that.  It’s suicide on the stage if you come to a project with a very fixed idea.  Yes, you have to understand what has happened, and you have to understand the basis of the character, but you also have to be open, because through this openness you uncover many surprises that you may never have known under any other circumstances.  That’s very important, because otherwise it can get very old and predictable, and that’s not interesting for an artist.  I’m not interested at all in going every night and doing the same Delilah.  I would find that so boring I would go crazy.

BD:   You want it to grow each time?

Graves:   Absolutely, and to learn new things.  Depending on who it is that you’re interacting with, they help shape her as well.  The Samson of Plácido Domingo is very different from the Samson of Ben Heppner.  They pull out different things in you, and call on different things from you, and that makes you different.

BD:   Yet it’s still the same words and the same music.

Graves:   Sure, but they could have a very different meaning, or a different twist to them.  That was one of the greatest things that I learned while working with Zeffirelli.  We worked on a new production of Carmen, and I came to the table with a great deal of information about who this woman is.  But after just sitting down with him for a couple of days, I thought I don’t have a clue!  There’s so much I have to learn and to know about this woman.

BD:   Do you then bring Zeffirelli’s ideas to the next production, and the one after that?

Graves:   Bits of them, but only if they work within the context of what we’re doing.  It depends on what type of production you have.  It might be a traditional one or a very radical one, and the setting is important, as is what you’re wearing.  All those things enter into it, so it’s important just to be open, wide open, when you’re looking at new pieces, or perhaps even more so with old pieces.  I wish directors would keep that in mind.  I know that each person has formed an idea before they go to the engagement, and then they need to see how quickly they have to modify those ideas when they get input from other people.  It’s not been exactly the way that they envisioned it.  A lot of times directors have an idea, and then they arrive on the scene, and they’ve got a Carmen who is six feet tall, and a tenor who is four feet eleven.  [Laughs]  So all of those things have to be taken into consideration.  You can use as much of the original idea as possible to make it more believable.  For example, for one production of Carmen I had a director who wanted me to be lighter.
BD:   Lighter vocally???

Graves:   No, in actual color, in pigment and skin.  We tried some much, much lighter colors that made me look like an alien.  I tried to be very accommodating, and agreed to go along with it.  After doing that, I felt it only underscores the fact that I am not this.  It made me look so strange, and I didn’t feel myself.  I wondered why I couldn’t be as I am?  I knew he had reasons, such as the light hitting a certain way, but that’s all talking.  Finally I said that I’m doing this show, and this is who I am.

BD:   If they wanted someone lighter, they should have hired someone lighter!

Graves:   Thank you!  [Both laugh]  I’m not going to go round changing the way I am.  There was something that was grotesque about it.

BD:   I would think it would destroy the real you.

Graves:   Sure!  But more importantly, I didn’t feel myself.  In the end, it created something far more damaging than what he wanted.

BD:   Now you’ve learned how to say no?

Graves:   You have to learn to say no, but you have to learn how to say no.  To learn to say no is already something, but how to say it is the key.  Each person is valuable, and a lot of people are very tender, so you have to skirt around and explain why you feel this way.

BD:   Maybe I’m naïve, but I would think that a stage director would want to take whatever the artist can offer visually and emotionally and vocally, and work with that, and enhance everything they can.

Graves:   That’s ideal, and I agree with you.  It is my hope that they would do that, but unfortunately that is not always the case.

BD:   Can I assume you didn’t work with this guy again?

Graves:   I have had the opportunity to work with him, but I have not.  As you go along in the business, you understand more and more.  When I was a student, you would hear these stories about opera singers being
divas, but now I understand it much more being on the other side.  There are people who strengthen you, who empower your performance, who support you, and those are the people that you want to surround yourself with.  It’s that simple.  If there are people who damage you in some way, who try to break your spirit, who kill your love and your joy, then it doesn’t serve anybody.  It doesn’t serve music, the art, the experience, the public, nothing, zero!  While I believe that it’s also important to get around those problems for the sake of time, in some cases along the way you learn to say no ahead, just to avoid all of those problems.

BD:   I hope you have more positive experiences than negative ones.

Graves:   Yes, I certainly have.

BD:   Are you at the point in your career that you want to be right now?

Graves:   [Thinks a moment]  No.

BD:   You are always striving for more?

Graves:   Yes, a lot more.  I’m working and plugging away, but at the same time I’m not panicky.  I believe that things will happen, and the process in general is important.  I have had some set-backs along the way, which were great lessons, and I’m so glad for them.  I know where some of the pitfalls are, and I just don’t go down that road.  We have to protect ourselves.  You have to guard these vocal cords, and you have to do those things which will ensure that.  You have to do as much as you can, because so many things are unpredictable.  You don’t know what’s going to happen, but you take all the steps that you know will ensure a good performance.  Then, if things are thrown in your path, they don’t shake you up so much.

BD:   What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

Graves:   Exactly!

BD:   One last question.  Is singing fun?

Graves:   Singing is a blast!  It is not always fun, but when I get out there after we’ve done the work, I always tell myself to just go out there and have a great time.  I have put in the work, and done what I was supposed to do.  Now is the time to release all of that and have a great time.  It’s there.  You retain that information.  We had a rehearsal today, and we worked on a lot of things for the Samson and Delilah.  I was having a grand time, but I will remember the things that we talked about
where we we’re going to pull back, and where this is going to come out.  First and foremost, you’ve got to know what’s going on, and you have to have your wits about you.  You also can’t fall into a lull, thinking this so beautiful, so that you’re not aware of what’s going on, because that also can happen.  As pure and as beautiful as it is, it can also happen.

BD:   You have to remember you’re the one making it happen.

Graves:   Yes!

BD:   Thank you for spending this time with me today.  I appreciate it.

Graves:   You’re welcome.


© 1997 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in suburban Chicago, at her hotel near the Ravinia Festival, on August 7, 1997.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 2001.  This transcription was made in 2022, and posted on this website early in 2023.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.