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'Olive Oyl' no more

Denyce Graves has come a long way since her shy, 'so skinny' days, with help from her friend: music.

September 21, 2003|Elaine Dutka

Mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves' story is nearly as dramatic as her operatic portrayals. Abandoned by an alcoholic father, she and her siblings performed with their mother at a host of Washington, D.C.-area churches. Enrolling in the city's Duke Ellington School of the Arts, she won a scholarship to Oberlin College and embarked on a professional career. A critically acclaimed performance of Bizet's "Carmen" in 1991 became her signature piece -- along with the female lead in "Samson et Dalila."

A regular at the world's top opera houses, Graves, 38, has been dubbed a "mini-corporation" -- cutting records, establishing a perfume and jewelry line, developing TV specials and serving as a U.N. cultural ambassador. She's now portraying Marguerite in the Achim Freyer production of Berlioz's "The Damnation of Faust" at the Los Angeles Opera, opposite Samuel Ramey and Paul Groves.

Performing didn't come naturally to you. You were shy as a child.

I had huge teeth and long arms and was so skinny my friends called me Olive Oyl. They also called me "Hollywood," thinking I was full of myself instead of just plain scared. Music gave me a sense of belonging and purpose. It was -- and is -- my best friend. Sometimes, when I take the makeup off, I realize that I prefer the stage character to the real me, that it's easier to wear that cloak. And when things go wrong, you can always blame the director -- which I do whenever I can.

You've sung this role in concert four times. Never in a full production, however.

At the premiere, I was nervous, very emotional, and hadn't slept well the night before. My makeup took too long to apply, and well-wishers interfered with my concentration. Though I'm a party girl after it's over, I'm pretty satanic before I go on. All that was reflected in my performance because, unlike a piano, the voice is God-made, a mysterious, changing instrument. That's where technique comes in; you need it to maintain consistency. When you perform, you give part of yourself away and you get so much back -- except when I did "Carmen" in Madrid. One great tune after another and no one applauded until the end. Skating on thin ice -- nude, I died 1,000 deaths every night and was overcome with grief.

This was, by all accounts, an artistically bold production. Is that an inspiration or a straight-jacket?

I love recitals because it's just you out there. It's a great responsibility, but you don't have to deal with a director's vision. You don't have to like it, a voice teacher once told me, but you do have to sell it. In "Faust," everything had to be very exact and economical to avoid distracting the audience. The challenge was finding freedom, possibilities within the structure. Physically, I had hair extensions that went from the stage into the wing space. If anyone tripped on them, they'd decapitate me during an aria. And laying down on the raked stage, I had to work my abs so I didn't roll into the lights. At first, they put me in platform heels, which would have been my swan song.

Opera has made strides since the days of Leontyne Price -- one of your heroes. Has it managed to become colorblind?

No. Nor should it be. When people first look at me, they see a "black woman." My ethnicity is a crown that I wear with great pride. But this is the theater, after all, and people want to see what they hear. Just like some people think it's a stretch for a beautiful tenor to fall in love with a 350-pound woman, some producers have told me that they can't imagine my face when they came up with a concept. My sense of purpose, fortunately, is stronger than their limitations. I'll continue singing -- in their house or not. In "Faust," my color works for me because everything is dark and light, white and black, which, for a change, represents the positive -- purity and love. I'm sure there's an element of racism in all these seductress roles. To lots of people, black women are an enigma, forbidden fruit. I fought that image for a while but ultimately embraced it.

-- Elaine Dutka

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