Heralded by The New York Times as ‘Opera’s Coolest Soprano’ and by The Telegraph as ‘the Diva who puts the Sex into Sussex', it’s easy to see why lyric soprano Danielle de Niese attracts such lofty praise.
It’s midday on a warm July afternoon, and I’m meeting the Chatelaine of Glyndebourne to talk opera, family, fashion and lifestyle. Danielle, originally from Australia, then Los Angeles, lives with her husband Gus Christie and their son Bacchus, in East Sussex. She is currently starring in Cendrillon at Glyndebourne.
As I’ve recently become an opera enthusiast, I’m a little apprehensive to meet the woman who dazzled the world in Giulio Cesare and The Marriage of Figaro. Danielle arrives wearing a little black dress paired with high pumps. The minute she walks into the room the space is filled with her boundless enthusiasm and graceful charm. Beyond her obvious beauty ( her parents are Sri Lankan ) Danielle has the ability to put anyone at ease: she is calm, relaxed and welcoming. Her effortless glamour is accented with red lipstick and subtle auburn highlights, creating an aura of warmth and vivacity.
'Music is as integral to me as my own DNA. My life has become a continual soundtrack with music underscoring the most powerful and even the most banal moments of my life.' Danielle de Niese
STIL: What is your first memory of singing?
DDN: My mother sang to me as a baby. I have a very early memory of listening back to recordings of me, she says I sang back to her with perfect intonation and I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t heard it....I learned everything about singing from her; how to take the music off the page and make it your own. To put your fingerprint on it. I learnt that from her.
STIL: How old were you when your parents noticed that you had a special voice?... and what happened next?
DDN: I was put into classes, singing and dancing and I loved it. My mum thought to get me proper training and she had to search for a classical teacher as no-one would take on an eight-year-old, but then she found one: Amanda Colliver. It was from those lessons that I felt that I really love this and I can do this.
STIL: Once you began performing as a child, did you still have a normal childhood...ie friends to play with, sleepovers etc?
DDN: Yes, so this is the wonderful thing about me, I’d like to think that...I had this extraordinary life, I was on TV at age 7 and 8, and performing, but I still went to birthday parties, I was allowed sleepovers, my primary school best friend is still my best friend today. I was allowed to remain in the world rather than be closeted off into a bubble.
STIL: At 19 you had your first big break when you appeared at the Met in New York in The Marriage of Figaro. That must have been completely life-changing – but you became a global star playing Cleopatra in Giulio Caesar at Glyndebourne in 2005. How did you cope with this sudden fame?
DDN: If you start at the Met you start at the top. I was used to pressure and all eyes being on me. I played Barbarina in the Marriage of Figaro and it was an all-star cast; it’s rare that you get Renee Fleming, Cecilia Bartoli, Bryn Terfel, Dwayne Croft, and Susanne Mentzer in the same group working together. I was catapulted to a level of fame…it was a breakthrough…I was launched onto the world’s attention. My career did sky rocket. That production was so iconic, it was like that for everybody in the cast, and my performance in it was such a success. Then Giulio Caesar – I liken it to what Titanic did for Leonardo di Caprio and Kate Winslet. Giulio Caesar was like that for me.
STIL: Did this then enable you to pick and choose your roles?
DDN: Picking and choosing: one should always pick and choose. One wrong choice could be detrimental to your career if it’s the wrong thing for you...you cannot afford to abuse your vocal-chords even for a short-term prospect. I’ve had the right team around me. They have invested in me as an artist and not in the money or kudos that I could bring, because they knew that I wanted longevity in my career. But I’ve had time on my side to be able to tread carefully. I’m very happy with the choices that I have made up to now.
STIL: Some roles you have played more than once; does your approach to a role change and develop every time you play it?
DDN: Yes, absolutely! The ethos as to how I approach a role is the same. But in certain scores when you open them again with different collaborators you can erase everything and start again. The orchestration is chosen, they make different cuts in the piece....if the ingredients to make the stew are different you get a different stew! Cleopatra in 2009 was a more vocally mature performance than in 2005...one is always improving one’s technique. I had lessons with Dame Kiri te Kanawa who told me that she was still learning and discovering throughout her career. If I did Cleopatra now it would be very different.
STIL: In connection with this, which is your favourite role so far - and which roles have you not yet sung that you would most like to?
DDN: Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni; I really like this character, I love singing it, I love fleshing out true authentic people from these archetypal characters. I view Elvira as someone who has gotten under the skin of Don Giovanni, she has got the measure of him. I love discovering facets of a character that haven’t been seen in other interpretations. I look at the score and see things. Manon is one of my favourite roles, but I haven’t yet sung it, and I’m very much enjoying Cinderella.
STIL: Your adrenalin levels must be extremely high at the end of a performance! Is it hard to unwind?...and how do you relax after a show?
DDN: In the old days I was up till 5, 6, 7am…then I’d sleep ‘til 2pm! Night-time is a wonderful time when you’re alone: you can work, keep going. Now I have a son, life is different. But on a show night I still get to bed around 2. The body begins its wind-down process quite quickly but the brain is still up.
STIL: You have described how you lost your voice during the later stages of your pregnancy. How worried were you at the time? And whilst on the subject of nerves – have you ever suffered from stage-fright?
DDN: The fun part of it was that I did sound like a sexy James Bond girl...I should have been more worried than I was...but giving birth to my child was a much bigger issue than my voice. Do I get nervous? Yes! But once you start singing well the nerves go. In Cinderella I inhale chalk dust...Cinderella has to clean! It slightly dries my vocal chords so I have to work through that.
STIL: You perform in the most splendid Opera Houses in the world. Do you have a favourite – other than Glyndebourne, of course?
DDN: The Met, as I grew up there; the Garnier in Paris. I spent a lot of time singing in Amsterdam: my husband and I fell in love in that city. The Royal Opera House is really special for me, I made my debut there in the first collaboration between the Royal Opera House and the Royal Ballet. The Royal Albert Hall, Dubai has a great concert hall…Naples!
STIL: Opera can be seen as exclusive – what are your thoughts on making it more inclusive?
DDN: Glyndebourne has under 30’s nights when you can see an opera for £30. Some people still feel the opera ( and it’s the same with ballet and perhaps art galleries too ) is a concept that they wouldn’t have enough knowledge to enjoy, and so they perceive that fear as a barrier. Another thing people site is the ticket prices....though I would surely pay more to see Madonna at the 02! But opera is such a unique experience and one of the only fully un-amplified vocal theatrical experiences.
STIL: In October you will star in a one-off concert at the Royal Albert Hall entitled ‘Songs from the Stage’. That’s singing in quite a different style. How much are you looking forward to that?
DDN: It’s a different style to opera but it’s not foreign to me. I’ve grown up with musical theatre alongside the opera, it’s a way of singing that I’m familiar with. I just made my West End debut in Man from La Mancha. I feel as though it’s coming full circle, and I’m starting to put back into my life the things that I grew up doing, things which have made me unique as an artist.
STIL: How do you prepare physically for a role and how do you keep your voice in tip top condition?... do you exercise generally? and if so, what type of exercise?
DDN: Unless a director tells me otherwise, I would do the same physical prep for any role - which is to stay in shape. Physically I have always struggled with my weight since I stopped dancing...I have to take care of my body and my heart, but food is delicious! I try to exercise regularly...five days is great, 30 minutes on the treadmill uphill. Right now I’m very into Gyrotonics.
STIL: Do you keep to any diet?
DDN: Strictly moderate...like anyone else I can really fall off the wagon! I try to eat healthily. I try to stay away from carbs in the evening and I listen to my body. I eat lots of fish and sushi...I’m not a drinker - I can take it or leave it, but if I do have a drink it’s a glass of white wine.
STIL: Fashion; do you have a style icon - and do you shop online?
DDN: I’ve worked with Donna Karan and Vivienne Westwood and I love them both…I’ve done some recent work with Temperley...I love the feminine form. My mum is my personal style icon, she also shops for me. She taught me to ‘wear what suits your body’. I certainly don’t shop online for clothes - no, it’s so personal.
STIL: Do you have a favourite concert gown?
DDN: The first one that pops into my head is an incredible Donna Karan. The second one is a pink Vivienne Westwood that I wore for the Last Night of the Proms, and I love the pink Temperley gown I just wore to the Olivier Awards.
STIL: You are a working mother and your hours are unsociable. How do you manage the work/family balance?
DDN: My son travels with me and my husband comes out when he can. My son is about to start school so everything is going to change.....but actually, until he turns five, I might still take him with me. What’s most important is my son’s happiness.
STIL: A typical weekend in the Christie household?
DDN: A nice breakfast together. We'll walk the dogs around the lake...we might go and watch Gus play cricket, maybe go to the pub for lunch; the Ram Inn in Firle or we might pack everybody into the Land Rover and drive to the Downs, walk in the bluebell woods, have a picnic. In the evening we might cook together, and if it’s nice, eat outside. On a rainy day we might take Bacchus to the cinema...and relax - we don’t have to fill our lives with activities as our lives are so full of activity.
STIL: Can you share with us a favourite book? What are you reading at the moment?
DDN: I don’t have time. My reading is researching for my roles, so I’m reading - just not novels. I take books on holiday but now I have a child I want to play with him, and he wants to play! I think every mum experiences this once they have kids. I have an insanely busy and wonderful life with my husband and my son, so I never get everything on my list done! When I choose to be with my son, or go to the cricket, I’m happy with that choice and I completely dedicate myself to the people that I’m with.
STIL: If you were stranded on a desert island and allowed only two foods and two material things what would they be?
DDN: Soy Sauce and Wasabi! On honeymoon we went fishing off the coat of Panama. I caught a tuna and my husband caught a Dorado. We took them to the shore and they were cut into Sashimi. There is no greater fish than the fish you have just caught and no restaurant can replicate the temperature of just-out-of-the sea. For my ‘things’ I’d have a spear like Tom Hanks in Castaway, a parasol and a Mexican hammock. Oh, and curry obviously!
STIL: A style tip for STIL customers?
DDN: Red lipstick because you can turn daytime to night-time anytime, and I always carry one iridescent rose gold eyeshadow and one dark that you can smoke up, then you can instantly glam up your look. Stick with what suits you and don’t be afraid to stick to the same style - always wear what flatters you; don’t follow style trends unless they suit you! Get a fabulous pump that really suits your leg. When you find great pumps they make your legs look endlessly long.
Despite her assistant telling her that her next appointment is here, Danielle tries on the dresses that I have brought with me from STIL: the Ulla Johnson Romilly and Loup Charmant’s Mayette, and she looks stunning in both. She chooses the Ulla Johnson Romilly. Not perhaps her usual style but it suits and fits her perfectly. I can see her wearing it on her weekend al fresco dinners in the Glyndebourne gardens. She is utterly charming. I leave Glyndebourne wondering how someone can be so talented, so full of self-confidence, have reached the pinnacle of their profession and yet have their feet so firmly on the ground. She is my new icon.
With thanks to: Fritha Wolsak and Christine Polyblank