Few mezzo-sopranos in history have ever sung Carmen - the untamable gypsy at the heart of Georges Bizet’s opera - with as much fire and passion as Denyce Graves.
It’s long been a signature role for the Washington native, and she’s performed it hundreds of times in productions all over the world. She’s so identified with it, she says, that she can’t get off a concert stage without delivering at least one of its arias. This week Miss Graves takes the role up once again, in a Washington National Opera production that opens on Saturday.
So she must be thoroughly, completely and totally sick of Carmen by now, right?
“No, no, no!” she insists, laughing.
“I’m always excited by a new production of Carmen, and I’m always challenged, theatrically and vocally,” she says, speaking by phone from Chicago, where she’s starring in a production of a new opera called “Margaret Garner,” written for her by composer Richard Danielpour.
“There’s so much stimulus going on, working with people I’ve never worked with before. And I’m always hearing something new in Carmen,” she says. “It’s a masterpiece; I always hear a different color in the orchestra, and there’s always something to discover. And what I want is for people to come and say, ‘I saw her do it 17 years ago, and it’s much better now.’”
And in fact, this “Carmen” may prove to be Miss Graves’ best yet - a mark of her triumph over career-threatening setbacks in her life.
Raised by a single mother in a small apartment in Southwest, the singer, now 44, never had it easy. But her talent was recognized early, and after graduating from the Duke Ellington School of the Arts and honing her technique at the New England Conservatory of Music, she quickly shot into the stratosphere in the 1990s. Armed with a spectacular voice and rare dramatic talent, she became one of the world’s most celebrated opera stars - largely due to her indelible portrayals of Carmen.
But eight years ago, the fairy-tale life turned dark. As her 15-year marriage to classical guitarist David Perry collapsed, she coped with depression, debilitating headaches and serious voice problems that threatened her career. Bleeding from the vocal cords, she completely lost her voice at one point and had to stop performing. As if that weren’t bad enough, her doctors cautioned her against ever having children, even suggesting a hysterectomy.
Instead, Graves fought back. She had surgery for a fibroid tumor, divorced Mr. Perry and married again, this time to the French composer Vincent Thomas. Her voice came back, stronger than ever. And despite the pessimism of her doctors, she became pregnant and now has a healthy 4-year-old daughter, Ella.
Life is beautiful now, she says. But she doesn’t regret having to endure a series of crises to get there.
“Those things are very important - they put your priorities in order,” she says. “You can choose to learn something from the experiences, and I’m much more aware and conscious of so many things, now. I’m much more centered. I try not to be in the past, or anywhere but right now. So I consider that a blessing.”
That new sense of herself seems to be pushing Miss Graves in new directions, too. She’s doing mostly concerts and recitals these days, rather than opera productions, which she says gives her a chance to explore music that she’s always wanted to do: Francis Poulenc’s “Metamorphoses,” for instance, or Claude Debussy’s “Chansons de Bilitis.”
“I’m doing material people probably don’t know me for, and I’m looking forward to expanding that repertoire,” she says. “And I feel stronger and more confident than I ever, ever have.”
But the real reason she prefers concerts over opera productions, she admits, is that it gives her more time for her most challenging role yet - being a mother.
“I’m so grateful for Ella,” she says. “She used to travel with me, but she’s growing - she’s got her own activities now.
“When she was really little, she used to take me to the piano by the hand and say, ‘Sit, Mommy. Sing.’ And now whenever I sing she says, ‘Oh, Mom, please! I’m trying to do something - and I can’t concentrate with all that noise!’”
WHAT: The Washington National Opera’s production of George Bizet’s “Carmen,” starring mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves as Carmen (Laura Brioli will sing the role Nov. 12 and 18), and Thiago Arancam and Brandon Jovanovich alternating as Don Jose. Directed by David Gately with Julius Rudel conducting. In French with English supertitles.
WHEN: November 8, 10 at 7p.m.; Nov. 12, 14, 18, 19 at 7:30 p.m.; Nov. 16 at 2 p.m.
WHERE: The Kennedy Center Opera House.
TICKETS: $45 to $300.
WEB SITE: www.dc-opera.org/