The Enchantress

Danielle de Niese, the diva who can bring a new generation to opera.

Call me Pygmalion.

That is my code name, of course. My real name is Dr. Piggy. I am director of research and development for Designing Women (NYSE: DeWo), a firm that designs women. Three years ago, Peter Gelb, the incoming managing director of the Metropolitan Opera, asked me to create a diva who could bring new life and new subscribers to that venerable art. With a hand-picked team of geneticists, biophysicists, and overpaid music critics, I drew up plans for a creature of superhuman beauty and talent, capable of singing, dancing, acting, and chewing gum at the same time, and charged with an animal magnetism of 10,000 Gauss. We were about to build the prototype when Mr. Gelb called to cancel the order.

“Never mind,” he said. “We found her.”

Though the contract is still in litigation, I can see his point.

In the summer of 2005, the soprano scheduled to sing the role of Cleopatra in a new production of Handel’s Giulio Cesare at the Glyndebourne Festival in Sussex, England, fell sick. Desperate, the management turned to a nobody: a 26-year-old of Dutch and Sri Lankan extraction, extracted from Australia at the age of 10, and raised in California. The youngest singer ever accepted into the Metropolitan Opera’s training program, she’d made her Met debut as Barbarina, to good notices, at the age of 19. Her name was Danielle de Niese.

On opening night, she ceased to be a nobody. Audiences roared themselves hoarse. Critics could barely keep their flies buttoned. David McVicar’s cheeky production—which transposed the action from the Roman Empire to the British and spiced Handel’s arias with dance moves from Bollywood, Broadway, and MTV—seemed custom-cut for de Niese’s outsized talents. In fact it was custom-cut for them, partly. When, in rehearsal, McVicar and his choreographer, Andrew George, saw what de Niese could do, they kept pushing the envelope: “Can you do this?” Invariably, she could.

Lip-syncing on MTV is a breeze; singing opera at full voice while dancing is not. Maintaining precise breath control can be agonizing (“My heart was beating in my throat,” de Niese says), and one has to shuttle constantly between the tight diaphragm required for dancing and the loose one required for singing. (By the way, this little problem gave the biophysicists on our design team a real headache; in the end, we had to spring for two diaphragms.) To be sure, de Niese did most of the really aerobic stuff during her arias’ ritornellos, or instrumental breaks. Even so, her feat was pretty stunning.

Those of us who missed it because we were busy designing the perfect diva will have another shot next month, when the same production is mounted by the Chicago Lyric Opera. In the meantime, we can watch the DVD (BBC/Opus Arte). And we can listen to her debut album, a recital of Handel arias released this week by Decca.

De Niese’s backers believe she could bring a new generation to opera. I fully expect her to rope in several generations, including not only those who have reached puberty but those who are still watching cartoons. De Niese has the larger-than-life features of a Disney princess. Figuratively (by which I mean literally, with regard to her figure), she is a flesh-and-blood ‘Toon, a regular Jessica Rabbit. She is built for the theater, her every eye roll and lip purse reading loud and clear even from the nosebleed section. Yet the camera loves her, too, a fact first discovered by producers in Los Angeles who made her host of a children’s TV show when she was 12. (She won an Emmy four years later.) At a distance of 14 inches (the closest I got, on my honor), her eyes are so large as to be dizzying. Her mouth is constructed on a similarly queenly scale. When she sings or speaks her lips put on a show of their own, a bijoux ballet.

We tend to assume that the sort of opera most likely to attract new audiences is the sort written by Verdi or Puccini, in which characters behave in a relatively natural manner (e.g., singing continuously in long arcs of melody, often while dying). But it may turn out that older, more “artificial” forms, such as Handel’s opera seria, are a better draw. The plots may be convoluted, but they move in quick bursts of recitative, between which one can kick back and enjoy the arias. These resemble modern pop songs in (A) offering a snapshot of emotion, (B) being in ABA form, and (C) lending themselves to MTV treatment. And (D) just as the American popular song tradition, from the Café Carlisle to American Idol, allows one to “put one’s own spin on the standards” (in de Niese’s words), so does the return of the A section give ample room for creative ornamentation, which not only colors the music emotionally but “gives the singer a chance to show off, which I think modern audiences can relate to.” Since (E through H) Handel was probably, as Winton Dean remarks, “the greatest melodist in musical history” (think Messiah, then multiply by 23 oratorios, 50 operas, etc., etc.), you’ve got quite a songbook to work with.

Since I may have given the impression that my admiration for de Niese rests on extramusical grounds, let me use her new record as a chance to test that hypothesis.

Four of the nine characters de Niese impersonates are sorceresses (five if you count Cleopatra, who was so regarded by the Roman senate). Perhaps this should not surprise us, as Handel had a soft spot for sorceresses and gave them some of his best music. He seemed to sympathize with the enchantress’s plight: She can snare any man she wants, but when her spell is broken, she loses him. (Sometimes she tires of him first, in which case, like Alcina, she turns him into a rock or a tree; as any woman will tell you, this is pretty low-grade magic, since most men turn to wood or stone after sex anyway.)

De Niese is an enchantress, of course. Her magic does not require that she be physically present; it works just fine on video. But if so much of it is visual, what happens when all she has to conjure with is her voice? Will the spell—transferred to a spinning circle—be unbroken? Or will her man come to his senses and escape?

Let’s take the opening cut: ” Da tempeste,” the bravura aria Cleopatra sings when, having escaped dungeons, daggers, and a particularly nasty countertenor, she suddenly finds herself with Egypt, Caesar, and the known world at her feet. “If a ship, buffeted by storms, then reaches safe harbor, it no longer knows what to wish for.” In this foray into nautical psychology even so fine a Cleopatra as Magdalena Kozená falls short, incising a triumph so steely that one wonders if her dreadnought was ever at risk. De Niese, at a less frenetic tempo, conveys relief and a giddy joy: She’s on solid ground, but her legs are still shaking. In the repeat of the A section, where most singers just strut their stuff, de Niese uses ornaments as tools to dig deeper into the truth of the scene, striking gold with a spine-tingling cadenza. Compare the cadenza offered more than 40 years ago by one of the first Cleopatras on record, and to many ears still the best (of whom more later): It’s great fun, but empty of musical or dramatic sense.

If, on more plaintive numbers (such as “Lascia ch’io pianga,” from Rinaldo, de Niese doesn’t always sound the uttermost depths of sorrow, her youthful passion has a power of its own. Under, or somewhere near, the baton of William Christie—her conductor at Glyndebourne and elsewhere—the players of Les Arts Florissants partner her gallantly.

A quibble: While on the Glyndebourne DVD de Niese’s voice is, like her person, luscious from top to bottom, on the record it seems just a tad uneven, with hints of glare in the upper or “cash” register (so called because it produces the “money note”); I trust this can be chalked up to close miking and to the acoustics of the Paris church in which the recording was made. Mostly, though, the voice remains fresh, delicious—and, yes, enchanting. At least for this victim, the spell holds. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Decca has graced the CD booklet with an all-Danielle fashion portfolio worthy of Vogue.

A young American singer takes the role of Cleopatra and is catapulted to instant fame. Sound familiar? It should if you paid the slightest attention to the recent obits for Beverly Sills, whose Cleopatrapulting took place in 1966. I’m not about to equate the two ladies vocally (love may be blind, but it isn’t deaf). Still, there are parallels worth drawing.

Onstage and off, Sills came across as unaffected, even “natural.” But it isn’t possible to be natural in opera any more than in sword-swallowing. In Donizetti’s Daughter of the Regiment—a 1974 Wolf Trap performance taped for TV—her gestures and facial expressions are refreshing because they come not from opera buffa but from vaudeville and Hollywood. (She claimed she took her cues from Lucille Ball, but she reminds me more of Harpo.) Even in more serious roles, such as her sublime Manon, one sensed a light emanating more from the Great White Way than from La Scala or the Palais Garnier.

De Niese, too, oxygenates the opera house with acting that seems unoperatic—which is not to say it’s not stagey. She could be Cleoparachuted into a Hilary Duff or Lindsay Lohan flick, and no one would bat an eye, at least until she started singing; even then, her dance moves might well distract viewers from the fact that the notes were written almost 300 years ago by a man wearing a wig the size of a collie.

Sills, who could duet with Danny Kaye as gracefully as with Nicolai Gedda, made many Americans feel at home in opera for the first time. De Niese has the potential to be that sort of rara avis (as Julius would say): not a glitzy, bloated “crossover” star, but one who doesn’t need to cross over because she naturally lives in both worlds.

I could be wrong, of course—in which case, Mr. Gelb, Galatea 1.0 is ready to roll.