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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 18 December 2018

Danielle de Niese on her UAE debut at Dubai Opera and being dubbed opera’s coolest soprano

UAE fans can hear some of her new direction when she makes her debut in the Emirates at Dubai Opera

Danielle de Niese performing in the United Kingdom, where she is currently based. Gareth Cattermole / Getty Images
Danielle de Niese performing in the United Kingdom, where she is currently based. Gareth Cattermole / Getty Images

When you enter show business as a child star, your career is marked by evolution.

For Australian-American lyric soprano Danielle de Niese, it first meant a change of genres.

After training in a variety of forms, ranging from dance to pop and folk, as early as 6 years old, De Niese focused that burgeoning talent and energy on classical music.

Next up was a change in location. After winning the 1988 season of Australian television talent quest Young Talent Time – which discovered pop stars Dannii Minogue and Tina Arena – at the age of 9, she was subsequently dubbed opera’s next young star. She relocated with her family to Los Angeles to receive classical vocal training at the distinguished performing-arts school Colburn.

Now, after headlining performances ranging from the New York’s Metropolitan Opera – where she made her debut as a 19-year-old – to London’s Convent Garden, in addition to an appearance in Hollywood blockbuster Hannibal and duetting alongside rapper LL Cool J, the 38-year-old, who is of Sri Lankan heritage, is going through her next major transformation.

“My voice has taken a turn in terms of growth,” she says from her present base in the United Kingdom. “Not all voices grow bigger and bigger. Some singers, their voices stay the same, and so they can sing the same repertoire for their whole career. As it is, because my voice has grown, I’m now moving into slightly heavier roles, and that’s been exciting to witness. But it is strange because it is all happening inside my body.”

While not completely moving on from her signature baroque arias of Handel and Mozart, De Niese found different roles within those cannons to accommodate those extra bass tones.

UAE fans can hear some of that new direction when she makes her debut in the Emirates at Dubai Opera on Friday. A key piece in the programme will be her take on Donna Elvira from Mozart’s Don Giovanni – a role she only began performing this year.

While De Niese recorded a Donna Elvira aria as part of 2009 release The Mozart Album, she only gave a premiere to the role of the spurned lover on stage in June in a production at Germany’s Semperoper Dresden.

The wait was as much a physical process as a mental one, she explains. Not only did her voice require a certain heft to become believable for a live performance, but De Niese also needed to get to grips with one of opera’s most misunderstood characters.

“I’ve always found that she’s the kind of role that ends up looking really clingy and neurotic and kind of clueless,” she explains. “But it’s only when I really looked into the role that I saw so much more to this woman.

“She had a pull on Don Giovanni. There’s something that happened between the two where they both felt emotionally exposed to one another. These are some of the things that I detail in this character. That she is someone that really understands Don Giovanni. She knows what he’s about and how he finds it hard to commit to another person in a real and authentic way. Elvira is not a weak person at all – in a way, she is Don Giovanni’s conscious.”

It is the kind of insight that De Niese has gleaned from a method-acting approach to her work, with a regimen that includes consistent vocal training and studying. De Niese explains the immersive technique provides her with a deeper career perspective.

“Although I dreamt of being an opera singer since I was 8 and I have done many things ahead of my time, I actually approach it all very slowly and cautiously,” she says. “For me, it is about doing roles that I am ready for. It is not a race to the finish line. I still want to be here 20 years from now and still being able to discuss my work with you.”

De Niese credits her parents for instilling such a long-term view.

As well as ensuring De Niese had some semblance of a normal childhood – there were, she says, lots of sleepovers and skateboarding – it was their decision to pair her with a classical-music teacher as an 8-year-old that she describes as career defining.

“Even with all these people and my parents’ own instincts telling them that I was quite good at a young age, my mom thought to herself: ‘Let’s find her a classical voice teacher so she can get some technical training’,” she recalls.

“My parents thought I should have something that I can lean on, so that I won’t be under pressure to wing it based on how I feel. It was from those lessons that I fell in love with classical music.”

But De Niese never totally abandoned her childhood love for pop music and good old-fashioned show business. Her career has been marked with occasional forays into other mediums, from film and television to even hip-hop.

As a young teen in the United States, she hosted the television talent programme LA Kids and appeared in Hannibal, the 2001 sequel to classic chiller The Silence of the Lambs.

De Niese’s career has also included turns in Hollywood and hip-hop. Gareth Cattermole / Getty Images
De Niese’s career has also included turns in Hollywood and hip-hop. Gareth Cattermole / Getty Images

The industry buzz generated from De Niese’s debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York a year previously had crossed coasts over to Hollywood – movie director Ridley Scott enlisted her to perform as Beatrice in a scene where the iconic title character, played by Anthony Hopkins, is enraptured by a production of Dante’s La Vita Nuova.

De Niese recalls three days of nocturnal shooting where she rubbed shoulders with the Academy Award winner.

“Hopkins is one of the most generous and lovely actors – and a non-diva in any way,” she says.

“He didn’t have a big entourage around him. He was just really easy to chat to.

“The funny thing is I didn’t tell anybody either about my role. So when all friends saw my scene they stood up in the theatre and said: “I know her.”

While the film appearance complimented her career profile, it was her televised musical collaborations with Lebanese-English pop star Mika and LL Cool J, in 2010 and 2012 respectively, that ruffled feathers.

While De Niese was hailed by the US press as “opera’s coolest soprano”, certain sections of the classical-music fraternity did not share such sentiments.

“There’s a few people in the business who are wonderful, but who are fearful of the other realms of music that they don’t know,” she says.

“When I was asked to perform with Mika and LL Cool J, I remember a couple of people from inside the business going: ‘Why are you doing that? Why are you doing this show when you’re such a legitimate star in the opera world?’ I would reply by saying well, that’s exactly the reason why I’m doing it. As a real opera singer, I should get out there and take the opportunity to represent our world properly.”

But more than being a global ambassador for opera, De Niese says she is more interested in forging new relationships with international audiences. Hence her genuine excitement about her Dubai Opera show.

With a programme beginning with an aria from Handel and ending with Broadway standard from Rodgers and Hammerstein, De Niese hopes her performance begins an enduring bond with the Arab world.

“I love doing new collaborations and that’s one of the reasons I’m so excited about this concert in Dubai,” she says. “I’ve been wanting to come to the UAE for a really long time and learn about the audiences there and connect with them. I hope I can start a beautiful relationship where I can come and bring lots of music and share things with UAE audiences."

Danielle de Niese will perform at Dubai Opera on Friday, October 6. Doors open at 7.30pm. Tickets cost from Dh250 from www.dubaiopera.com

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