Vocal damage in CLASSICAL singers: It’s not just pop singers that get hurt
NBC news interviewed world renowned laryngologist Dr. Steven Zeitels (Harvard Medical Center) for a story about the life span of a singer’s voice. The article says “Zeitels estimates he’s performed about 75,000 voice operations, 500-700 of those on singers….Most of the singers he has performed on have been opera singers, because of the substantial demands on their voice.” In the article he lists the names of some of his famous pop singer clientele, but does not list a single opera singer’s name. Why? Because there is such a stigma around vocal injury in the classical voice community that most singers are not willing to admit they have sought help.
I recently had a conversation with a world renowned singing voice specialist who has found it frustrating that none of their professional opera singers are willing to provide a written testimonial for public use. The singers’ refusal is not because they were unsatisfied with the therapy, it is because they believe they cannot publicly admit that they ran into problems. If you dig around online you can find stories of opera singers who have run into problems, but they are not easy to find. Soprano Natalie Dessay had an operation to remove nodules from her vocal folds. Denise Graves hemorrhaged during a performance when she sneezed backstage, which is similar to what recently happened to Megan Trainor. Rolando Villazón was diagnosed with a vocal cyst in 2009 that required surgery. Cysts can occur on their own, but they can also be a result of extreme vocal use. These are all well known performers who sing very well and still ran into vocal problems.
Perhaps more illuminating are the results of studies with anonymous participants. A scientist in Krasnoyarsk, Russia conducted a study to analyze the results of voice therapy on twenty-eight classical singers with nodules. Classical singers in a study conducted at the University of Pittsburgh displayed the lowest Voice Handicap Scores of all the participants, suggesting that they felt significantly handicapped in the their voice use, more so than any other categories of voice users. Researchers in Melbourne, Australia found that 23% of classical singers had to cancel a performance within the last year due to a vocal issue and 51% of the classical singers said that they had struggled at some point in their career with one of seven diagnosed vocal conditions listed in their survey. If you search through the archives of the Journal of Voice and other peer-reviewed journals, you can find many other articles that deal with voice issues in classical singers.
What about voice teachers? One may assume that those who have made a career protecting the voices of their students would be free of problems themselves. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Yolanda D. Heman-Ackah, Carole M. Dean, and Robert T. Sataloff conducted strobovideolaryngoscopic examinations of voice teachers at a national convention. They examined twenty teachers, including seven who had vocal complaints, and all of whom identified themselves as singers of classical music. Of those teachers, eleven had vocal cysts, eight had vocal fold hypomobility, one had a polyp, two had Reinke’s Edema, and three had sulcus vocalis. Every single subject had signs of acid reflux.
So what does all of this mean? It means that ALL singers of ALL styles are prone to vocal injury and so are their teachers. It means that we are all human and we are not invincible. We need to stop saying “a lack of classical technique” is why pop singers run into problems and we need to stop spreading the myth that classical singers never get injured. Instead we need to start focusing on spreading knowledge about how to avoid vocal damage and how to recover from injuries when they happen. We also need to start encouraging classical singers to share their struggles and not be afraid to say they got hurt. We have too much to gain from each other and too much to lose by staying silent.
Natalie Dessay, the soprano, descended a staircase into the rehearsal room at the Metropolitan Opera with the poise of a countess entering a ballroom, dressed in skinny black pants, high heels, and a belted black jacket, her eyes shielded by enormous sunglasses of the sort favored by Paris Hilton. A bright-orange handbag swung from the crook of her arm, and she held a cell phone to her ear. She seemed irritated by the words of her interlocutor—her agent in France, perhaps. She also seemed largely oblivious of the ministrations of a pair of company operatives who had rushed to disencumber her and were removing jacket, scarf, and—as Dessay carelessly extended each limp, queenly hand—an imaginary pair of gloves.
It was the first afternoon of rehearsals for Bellini’s “La Sonnambula,” in which Dessay is to appear at the Met, in March and April. To compensate for the opera’s famously silly and thin libretto—a woman who is about to be married sleepwalks into the room of a man who is not her intended; scandal ensues; her doubting groom discovers her sleepwalking again; her honor is restored—the director, Mary Zimmerman, had given the production a playful conceit. Zimmerman’s singers would appear as members of an opera company rehearsing a production of “La Sonnambula,” with Dessay playing an adored, self-absorbed soprano cast as Amina, the sleepwalker of the title. At the outset of the opera, the set would be a mock rehearsal room (coffee machine, water dispenser, a chalkboard reading “Act I, Scene 1”) and the cast would show up onstage wearing street clothes. In the case of Dessay, who is tiny and has the build and carriage of a dancer, this meant stretchy pants, a yoga top from Lululemon, and—forthcoming—an elegant pair of gloves.
Dessay is known for her unusual commitment to exploring the theatrical possibilities offered by opera, and she was more than happy to improvise and experiment. She delivered her first aria while trying on shoes, tossing several pairs aside before settling on black high-heeled boots, in which she hopped and twirled for a moment, showily testing them for comfort. A trolley cluttered with plastic-foam heads, bald for the purposes of rehearsal but ultimately to be equipped with wigs, was wheeled in for her perusal; Dessay cast a weary eye upon them, carelessly rummaged through them, and held one up—like a Hamlet contemplating the skull of Yorick—before tossing it aside in disdain. “La Sonnambula” is rarely played for humor, but Dessay was finding a new way into the work, and Zimmerman bounced on the balls of her feet in apparent delight, offering her celebrated star only the gentlest of guidance as to how to play a celebrated star. “Don’t get too imperious,” Zimmerman said. “You’re just spoiled. Just thoughtless.”
Dessay was entirely persuasive in the role of a self-regarding diva rehearsing a notoriously demanding role—“La Sonnambula” is infrequently performed, in part because of its plot and in part because it is technically so difficult—except that she couldn’t actually sing. A week earlier, after concluding a short run of “Pelléas et Mélisande,” by Debussy, at the Theater an der Wien, in Vienna, she’d been struck with laryngitis. While she could still speak—her conversational voice, surprisingly low, was only slightly husky—she could not use her operatic voice, which is prodigiously high and supple. Dessay was marking the notes: singing them in a tuneful but subdued near-whisper, an octave lower than they would be heard in performance. A spectator unfamiliar with Dessay’s capabilities might have taken her not for an opera singer who can act but for an actor with a surprisingly pretty little voice—a voice that, given some training, might really turn into something.
Dessay says that it is her highest artistic ambition to embody a character so persuasively, and tell a story so convincingly, that the audience forgets that she is singing. “What is interesting is to have this incredible, unbelievable way of expressing ourselves vocally paired with a total controlled and quiet body,” she says. This is, she admits, very hard to achieve, not only because of the implausibility of many opera plots but also because of the physical demands of the art. “It’s almost impossible to sing and really act at the same time,” she says. “For me, acting is receiving, and singing is giving, and that is why it is so difficult, because your body does one thing and your mind does another.”
Some of the most successful singers in the history of opera refrained from acting entirely—Pavarotti was most convincing as himself—but among the greatest of singers there have also been formidable actors and actresses, and Dessay, who calls herself a “singing actor,” is the performer who best represents that tradition today. David Gockley, the general director of the San Francisco Opera, said, “She is extraordinarily demanding on herself, and her colleagues. That is what made Callas an extraordinary experience compared with Tebaldi, who was regal and stately and uninvolved dramatically. That’s good enough for some people—to hear the world’s most beautiful voice. But Callas was this character who was interesting on many different levels, certainly mythically, and she brought everyone in the cast up a notch. And I would say that of Natalie.”
Dessay will be in New York for two months this spring for “La Sonnambula,” staying at an apartment on the West Side, which she bought a little more than a year ago. (Upon arriving at her pied-à-terre the day before rehearsals began, she spent three hours cleaning it, a chore that Zimmerman’s imagined diva would surely have delegated.) But whenever possible Dessay is in a suburb with a sleepy main street, half an hour outside Paris—like Pelham but with better pâtisserie—where she lives with her husband, Laurent Naouri, a baritone, and their thirteen-year-old son and ten-year-old daughter.
“I live here because I couldn’t afford this in Paris,” Dessay told me when I visited her there in January, and by this she meant her house, a former hunting lodge, set in a walled garden, which was designed by Jules Corboz, who made the famed chandelier at the Palais Garnier opera house, in Paris. Her living room has a coffered ceiling, elaborate moldings, and tapestries depicting the chase, but Dessay’s way of life is less grandiose. The couches are comfortably worn and draped with throws in a manner familiar to anyone obliged to share space with children. She lives without the perquisites of fame enjoyed by pop divas: she has no personal assistant, no personal trainer, no live-in housekeeper. On the day I was to visit her home—she had flown back for thirty-six hours between performances in Vienna—she called to apologize for running late; she had to take two of her cats, Polyp and Nodule, to the vet.
Dessay, who is forty-three, has expressive green eyes and an archly intelligent mien. She is both modestly self-deprecating and genuinely self-doubting. “It is very bizarre—I sometimes have a superiority complex and an inferiority complex at the same time,” she says. Naturally dark, she is currently a blonde. “I changed last summer, don’t ask why,” she told me. “It was one of those summers when I hated myself.”
She has been married for fifteen years to Naouri, for whom she converted to Judaism. Dessay and Naouri try to insure that, their international engagements notwithstanding, one or the other of them is in Paris at any given time, which means that Naouri often has to fit his engagements around Dessay, because she is booked five years in advance. (She typically performs forty times a year.) Although they were both starring in “Pelléas et Mélisande” in Vienna, they rarely work together. When they do, it is sometimes to great effect, as in a 1997 production, in Lyons, of “Orpheus in the Underworld,” in which Dessay played Eurydice and Naouri played Jupiter. In the “Fly Duet,” Jupiter, in the guise of a fly, seduces Eurydice. Naouri told me, “It got very sexy, because, at her own suggestion, she would climax on a top E when I was going down on her. It’s now on YouTube. Anyone can see it.” Twenty-nine thousand people have, enjoying the spectacle of Naouri, in a bulbous insect costume, chasing Dessay, who—with her black bob, negligee, and fishnet stockings—bears a striking resemblance to Betty Boop, but with an even higher pitch.
Like many opera singers, Dessay nurtured no desire to sing operatically until she accidentally discovered that she could. “I sang for myself under the shower, like everyone else,” she said. “I did know that I could sing in tune, that is all.” She was raised in Bordeaux, where her father was an engineer and her mother a housewife. She recalled, “Maybe it’s a legend I tell myself now, but I have the impression that since I was five years old I wanted to be onstage, first as a dancer and then as an actress, and then as a singer. Probably I wanted to be heard. I remember a phrase that my mother kept telling me when I was a child: ‘Stop with your piercing voice’—la voix perçante, which is a very high and unpleasant voice.”
She studied ballet, but realized in her teens that she would never be good enough to dance professionally. “I didn’t have flexibility, cou de pied, en dehors, everything,” she says. “It was the first great disappointment of my life.” After high school, she went to college to study German, but found it dull; she enrolled instead in a theatre program at the conservatory in Bordeaux. In her second year there, at the age of twenty, she was required to sing in a theatre workshop. Although she had no great familiarity with opera—her exposure was limited to the few recordings of Maria Callas, Montserrat Caballé, and Kiri Te Kanawa that her parents owned, and to the occasional school outing to the local opera theatre, where she once slept through a production of “Tristan und Isolde”—she decided that her character, a French noblewoman, would perform Pamina’s aria from “The Magic Flute.” “Everybody told me, ‘But you have a nice voice! You should take lessons!’ ” she says.
Within a year, she had dropped out of the theatre program and began studying voice. “When you are gifted for something, you want to improve, and it gives you courage to work hard, and that is what I was waiting for,” she says. “To know where I was gifted, in order to have the courage to work.” At first, her voice was flexible and high but small. “One of my teachers told me, ‘You don’t sing like an opera singer—you sing like a pop singer,’ ” she said. (She never had any interest in a pop career, though: “My natural voice is not interesting at all—it is nothing.”) Opera training was boring and arduous. “You are learning how to produce the most beautiful sound with what you have in your throat, and because you can’t control anything directly, your teacher has to explain through metaphor,” she said. “ ‘Think that your voice is a Ping-Pong ball on a fountain of water’; ‘Think that you are beginning to yawn’; ‘Think that you have a hot potato in your mouth.’ ”
Typically, it takes five years to train an operatic voice, and longer for it to mature. Dessay, however, started singing professionally after only a year, when she undertook an audition for the opera company in Toulouse—more, she says, as an exercise than in the expectation of being hired. “Right after the audition, someone ran up to me and said, ‘Stay here—just stay here.’ And I was asked to join the chorus.” At first, she imagined a career as a member of an opera company. “But I realized it was not enough, and I wanted to be a soloist,” she says. Naouri, who first met Dessay twenty years ago, when she was still a student, told me, “It was clear to me the first time I heard her that I was meeting one in thousands.”
Dessay began to work with provincial opera companies, building a repertoire of roles that suited her creamy, silvery voice, which moved with great ease and could reach unusual heights—she could hit a top G, which is so unusual that it is rarely called for, even among coloratura sopranos. She developed her theatrical presence in addition to her vocal one. She recalled one of her first rehearsals—for “Le Roi l’a Dit,” by Delibes, in Nantes. “I was so happy to be onstage, I couldn’t just walk, I kept jumping around,” she said. “The director said to me, ‘Why are you jumping?’ And I said, ‘I’m not!’ But I was. Thank goodness he told me.”
When the Theater an der Wien was built, in 1801, by the impresario Emanuel Schikaneder—Mozart’s sometime librettist—it was regarded as having the most up-to-date facilities in the world of opera. Recently, the theatre’s managers have added four high-definition cameras, in an effort to extend opera’s reach and relevance. Dessay loathes the unforgiving nature of high-definition—“When you are twenty, it’s great,” she says—but she recognizes its necessity, and on a rainy afternoon in Vienna, the day after a performance of “Pelléas et Mélisande,” Dessay and Naouri were peering at a laptop in the office of Roland Geyer, the theatre’s director, viewing video of the performance, in anticipation of its eventual release on DVD.
“Pelléas et Mélisande,” a dreamlike work based upon a Symbolist dramatic text by Maurice Maeterlinck, is an oddity in Dessay’s repertoire. More of a sung play than an opera, it is at the low end of her range. Not only was there no need to warm up before each performance; she actively had to avoid doing so, in order to keep her voice as low as it needed to be. The absence of spectacular coloratura and high notes was exactly why Dessay was eager to undertake the role. “Sometimes in opera, reaching a note can be enough, even if it’s not enough for me,” she says. “For the audience, most of the time, it’s enough. Acting at the same time is much more difficult, because you have to reach places of your soul.” Often enough, those places of the soul cannot be explored with much plausibility, but Dessay portrayed Mélisande—a mysterious young woman found wandering in the woods by Prince Golaud, who marries her only to have her fall in love with his younger brother, Pelléas—as melancholy and interior, her voice sometimes falling to a near-whisper. The lack of high notes came to feel like a form of self-abnegation, like Nureyev dancing a waltz.
Dessay, in black pants and a cashmere hoodie, leaned intently toward the screen, as if she were an athlete scrutinizing the previous day’s game. “Oh, that’s pretty,” she said, as she watched herself jump down from a stepladder to the ground, her long gauzy skirt floating up around her calves. She asked to fast-forward to a scene in which she, as Mélisande aloft on a spiral staircase, is lifted down tenderly by her lover Pelléas, who was played by the young baritone Stéphane Degout. Dessay murmured with satisfaction at the effect. Less to her liking was the climactic scene in which Naouri, playing Golaud, Mélisande’s jealous husband, kills Pelléas as Mélisande looks on. Dessay watched herself cowering at one side of the stage, her eyes wide in terror. She grimaced. “I’d have made a great silent-movie actress,” she said, ruefully. “Lillian Gish—that’s me.” The tendency to overact is one against which she struggles. The night I saw “Pelléas et Mélisande,” I could almost read the white-on-black text of implicit dialogue (“Unhand me, you beast!”) as Dessay silently fought to free herself from a violent, jealous assault by Naouri—although, given that he was pulling her hair and shoving her to the ground, it seemed insensitive of Debussy to have given all the lines to Golaud.
“She is an extraordinary interpreter,” says Laurent Pelly, the French theatrical director behind this production of “Pelléas et Mélisande,” who also directed Dessay in a much lauded production of “La Fille du Régiment” that came to New York last spring, after runs at Covent Garden and the Vienna Staatsoper. Dessay was irresistible as Marie, the title character, usually played as a winsome maiden. “She’s a girl raised by a regiment of soldiers,” says Pelly, who explored this notion by putting Dessay in trousers and a singlet and having her play Marie as a tomboy unschooled in the ways of womanhood. Dessay, who showed comic timing worthy of Lucille Ball, also played Marie as literally unschooled: in a passage in which she was required to read a letter out loud, Dessay labored over every word, like a first grader in a school assembly. “It’s great to hear people laugh, because you can’t hear them cry,” says Dessay, who, for the part, also had to switch between exquisite singing and comical squealing, which is much harder than she made it look. (Imagine Usain Bolt slowing down to slap his chest in celebration just fifty metres into his Olympic sprint victory, then revving back up to full speed to finish the race off.)
In “La Fille du Régiment,” Dessay was paired with Juan Diego Flórez, the young Peruvian tenor, with whom she enjoyed a deliriously comical but genuine sexual chemistry, something not often witnessed on the stage of the Met. (The two will be reunited in the forthcoming “La Sonnambula.”) Dessay insisted on verisimilitude there, too. “There was supposed to be a kiss,” Flórez told me. “Opera singers usually fake it, but she said, ‘You have to kiss me.’ She knows that even if you do it very well it looks a little bit fake, and it has to be real. We had a very long kiss, because I had to hold her in my arms and sometimes there were two minutes of applause.”
Theatricality has become the watchword of contemporary opera companies that are intent upon expanding their audience. Peter Gelb, who has made Dessay a mainstay of his program, with one guaranteed run a year, says, “She is the kind of performer that can bridge the gap between this old art form and a modern public.” (Gelb, who recently announced that he and senior management have taken a ten-per-cent pay cut, owing, in part, to a thirty-per-cent drop in the value of the Met’s endowment, has not asked Dessay to lower her rate of sixteen thousand dollars per performance.)
There are critics and opera lovers, though, who consider it an irritating diversion when singers insist on importing emotion through gesture or through off-score vocal excursions—such as the shattering scream, not notated by Donizetti, that Dessay delivered in the mad scene of “Lucia,” when performing it at the Met in 2007, in a production by Zimmerman. Daniel Mendelsohn, in The New York Review of Books, wrote, “The scariness is already in the text, in the music. That Natalie Dessay and Mary Zimmerman thought that this scene needed the addition of ‘real’ scariness merely reveals the extent to which they neither comprehend nor trust the authors of the work they’re staging.”
“I totally disagree with that,” Dessay says. “I think we are free to play it as we want. It’s O.K. to scream, it’s O.K. to whisper, to use every color you can and that you have in your voice, and to use your body until the last hair you have. Otherwise, it can be a concert. If it has to be perfect, let’s do a recording, and let’s not speak about theatre or interpretation.”
For all her recent success in the United States, the kind of interpretations that interest Dessay are more typically produced in Europe, a fact that has kept her working consistently on the Continent. (So have the demands of motherhood, though she can sometimes go a couple of days without even talking to her children on the phone.) In the nineties, Dessay flourished in so-called Regietheater—“director’s theatre,” in which works from the canon are given an aggressive, contemporary, sometimes overtly political interpretation. In 2001, when the Salzburg Festival was being run by Gerard Mortier—the Belgian impresario who recently backed out of taking over the City Opera in New York—she appeared as Zerbinetta in a controversial production of Strauss’s “Ariadne auf Naxos.” She and the nymphs were cast as members of a post-punk rock band, and she performed an aria while standing atop a piece of furniture, stripping her clothes off. (Dessay’s ability to sing while in motion, or running, or lying on the floor, is impressive, if not exactly singular. “A lot of people sing lying down these days in the opera,” Sarah Billinghurst, an assistant manager partly responsible for casting at the Met, says. “Anna Netrebko sings a lot lying down, too. Many of these young divas are physically very agile, so when a director says, ‘I think you should end up on the floor,’ they are usually quite happy to do so.”) Gelb says, “Natalie’s great experiences in opera in Europe have been in these very strong, Regie-driven productions where she can be hanging from her foot, or being tortured—where she is really letting it hang out.”
“At least it’s alive,” Dessay says of this more adventurous approach to opera. “And even if the productions aren’t always good it’s worth doing them, because people talk about them.” The art form, she says, “is dusty, in a way. But it can be dusted. That’s my mission.” There are contemporary movie directors, she thinks, who should direct at the opera house: Baz Luhrmann, Pedro Almodóvar. “Tim Burton should do ‘Tales of Hoffmann,’ ” she says. “I would like to do that with him.”
But the very form of opera, she says, militates against the kind of plausibility that she attempts to bring to her roles. “It’s difficult, because when you sing, it is already too much,” she says. “It is really difficult to be believable when the first thing you have to do is fake.” Dessay is like a would-be portrait painter who discovers that her real talent is for ceramics: her artistic inclinations chafe against the limitations of the art form at which she excels. “Because I didn’t choose it—it chose me,” she said. “I didn’t want to be an opera singer.”
Her desire for a career as a stage actress may soon be fulfilled: she hopes to star in Paris in a stage play by Thomas Bernhard. She has been trying for a decade to mount a production of the play, a farce about an opera singer who falls apart. “She sort of has a breakdown because she sings the Queen of the Night from ‘The Magic Flute’ the five hundredth time, and she can’t anymore,” says Dessay, who has sung the role perhaps seventy times herself. “She just wants to cancel everything. So it is something I know.”
In 2001, Dessay was obliged to cancel several performances on account of a breakdown that was not mental but vocal. “Nothing was flexible anymore,” she told me one evening in a café in Vienna, where she sought out a seat as far as possible from a table of smokers, and ordered green tea. “I was always straining, without having a cold or anything, and I could feel my voice when I was speaking. Normal people feel their voice when they don’t have it anymore—that’s the only way to feel your voice, in its absence. But to feel your voice when it does work is so bizarre.”
That September, a cyst was discovered on one of her vocal cords, and she underwent surgery a few months later. “It’s like having a sand grain on your voice,” she says. “If you don’t sing, it’s O.K.—it’s just a little unpleasant. But if you sing it’s a catastrophe.” Two years later, she underwent a second operation, to remove a polyp on the opposite cord.
Vocal-cord injury bears a stigma in the world of opera—it is wrongly thought to be caused invariably by improper technique, though problems can arise with the most technically proficient of singers. Dessay was advised by some of her friends to attribute her withdrawal to “personal reasons,” as if being the subject of marital rumors were preferable to having a vocal problem. Dessay was, however, open about the cause of her absence from the stage. “It is just an accident—it can happen to anybody who trains a lot,” she says of the injury. Her second surgery, in 2004, was even filmed for a documentary series about her, which was shown on French TV. (A doped-up Dessay mugs for the camera as she lies on a gurney, waiting to go into the operating room. “I’ll have vocal-cord liposuction!” she says. “A cord face-lift!”) Even more intimate than the shots of her throat under the knife are the scenes in which Dessay tearily laments her larger predicament: the incompatibility of her professional calling with the conduct of a normal home life, and her consequent attachment to the illness that jeopardizes her career. (“I almost wish I’d get sick again, to have some peace,” she says.) It took her eight months before she was able to sing in public. “You don’t speak for one week after the surgery, and then you can try to talk and you try to recover the confidence to sing,” she told me. “The voice, you have it. But the confidence is gone. Some people only take three months to get over it, but I needed a lot of time, because I was totally destroyed. I was so afraid and traumatized.”
Since having the surgery, Dessay has lost the highest of the notes that she was able to reach before—F, G, and A— though whether the loss is attributable to the disorder or just to the aging process is impossible to determine. In any case, she says, she had begun to change her repertoire before the surgeries, choosing roles for which a younger voice is less of a prerequisite. Unfortunately, such roles are also often less interesting. In 2006, in Santa Fe, she sang her first Pamina, the more-acted-upon-than-acting daughter of the imperious Queen of the Night in “The Magic Flute.” Brad Woolbright, the artistic administrator of the Santa Fe Opera, says, “She was a fantastic Pamina, and she put her all into it, but she decided that it was going to be the one and only time she sang it. She said, ‘It’s O.K., but she’s not that exciting a character.’ ” This summer at Santa Fe, she will be playing Violetta in “La Traviata,” her first time in the role, which demands a larger, louder voice than anything else in her repertoire. “But that is the edge of my possibilities—that is the last edge,” she told me. After that, she is not sure what other roles exist that might engage her. “The roles I have are the roles of a young girl—I don’t have roles like old ladies, or witches,” she says. “There are none for my kind of voice.”
Not everyone agrees with this evaluation, including, unsurprisingly, the directors of the opera houses where she works. “She is right that she has to look for other roles, and there are other roles,” Roland Geyer, of the Theater an der Wien, says. “For example, Despina in ‘Così Fan Tutte’ is supposed to be between forty and fifty years old. There are a lot of roles where being fifty could be ideal. But this is more a question of her own emotion. Every one of us—not only artists—wants to be younger.” Peter Gelb says, “A singer cannot even begin to have the kind of vocal power to sing these roles on a big stage of an opera house like the Met until they are in their thirties, so they start off being cast much older than the roles they are playing. That is one of the conceits of grand opera.”
Joan Sutherland sang the title roles of “Lucia di Lammermoor” and “La Fille du Régiment” at the Met when she was almost sixty, but Dessay is dismissive of the argument that opera singers have never been expected to stop singing the parts of maidens even as they push into mature matronhood. “Is it reasonable? Is it believable?” Dessay asked me in Paris, as she unloaded groceries in her kitchen and set about putting them away, although, on account of being away from home so much, she wasn’t sure what went in which cabinet. “Is it nice? I don’t think so.”
Dessay has been urged by her management to perform concerts and recitals, which are lucrative and less demanding in terms of rehearsal, and are the late-career choice of many a successful singer. She contemplates the prospect with horror. “I hate concerts,” she says. “I hate doing music just for music. I am not confident enough, and I am not used to doing that. I feel like a prisoner. What I like is being onstage with other people, and acting with them. Otherwise, I don’t see the point.”
There are still a few turns she would like to add to her repertoire, including playing all four female characters in Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffmann,” a feat of endurance attempted by only a handful of the greatest singers, including Joan Sutherland and Beverly Sills. She is scheduled to do so in Barcelona and San Francisco, in 2013. Dessay and Roland Geyer have discussed a number of possible future productions, including an interpretation of Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel” in which the unfortunate brother and sister are, she says, “grown up, almost old.” He also brought to her attention a work with which she was unfamiliar, a version of “Falstaff” by Salieri, which he suggested she might sing with a tenor who was new to her, Nikolai Schukoff. After she and Naouri had finished reviewing the video of “Pelléas” in Geyer’s office, the director Googled Schukoff for Dessay’s benefit, bringing up a picture of the handsome young Austrian in a production of Salieri’s “La Grotta di Trofonio,” shirtless and in briefs. “I’m delighted for her to do it—if I’m around,” Naouri said.
The next evening, before the performance, a member of Geyer’s staff went backstage and gave Dessay a copy of the score of the “Falstaff.” During intermission, she paged though it, scanning the staves to see if the role rose to vocal heights sufficient to interest her. Clearly, playing a role like Mélisande was meant to be a rare departure. “There’s nothing to sing here,” she said of the Salieri, leafing swiftly through in pursuit of a challenging aria before studying the music in greater detail. On a first pass, at least, she didn’t find much. “If I do something without high notes, everyone will say, ‘Oh, she doesn’t have high notes anymore.’ You can do it once, but if you do it again and again they start to talk, and then the reputation is gone.”
Mary Zimmerman, a theatre director who made her first significant foray into opera by directing Dessay as Lucia during the Met’s 2007-08 season, says that her meta-operatic concept for “La Sonnambula” was directly inspired by Dessay. “I started out thinking very traditionally,” Zimmerman told me at the Met, a few days before rehearsals of the new production were to begin. “It was going to be in a Swiss village. I went to a party with Natalie a couple of nights before the opening of ‘Lucia,’ and I said to her, ‘I need to talk to you about “La Sonnambula.” ’ She said, ‘Whatever you do, don’t set it in a Swiss village. You can’t set it in a Swiss village.’ ” (The one aspect of the initial production idea that did interest Dessay, according to Zimmerman, was the inclusion of an ice-skating party: “She said, ‘Oh, I will have to train!’ and her eyes got big. But that didn’t last long.”) Zimmerman considered withdrawing from the production, but awoke a night or two later with her revised concept, which was sufficiently un-Swiss to pass muster with Dessay.
Zimmerman calls the opera “a parable about popularity,” but says that her conception of the high-handed diva is not based on Dessay, or on any opera singer. “I am more thinking of ‘I love Britney Spears!’ ‘I hate Britney Spears!’ ‘I love Britney Spears!’ ” she said. Operagoers may nonetheless be forgiven for suspecting that the interpretation is Zimmerman’s gentle revenge upon Dessay, who was less than polite, both in public and in private, about the Met’s “Lucia” production, calling Zimmerman inexperienced. (“She didn’t know exactly what we need, and what we were waiting for from her, so it was a bit difficult,” Dessay told Charlie Rose. “But we found a way. But I think she has to learn more how to direct singers.”) Dessay thought that the staging was too conventional and, in particular, disliked her opening scene, in which she was positioned upon a heath, delivering an aria of exalted happiness. Zimmerman says that Dessay hated the scene, in part, because it required her to begin upstage, where she thought her voice would be diminished, rather than downstage, where a singer inevitably feels most secure. According to Dessay, though, the scene offered her nothing to work with dramatically. As audiences witnessed, she compensated by gambolling about the treacherously raked wood-and-plastic-foam heath, as if she were a highland deer. On opening night, she accidentally tumbled into a seated position, and completed her aria sitting down.
Peter Gelb, who helped to smooth things over between director and star, says, “Because Natalie is so interested in getting to the real underbelly, and soul, of roles which on the surface can be trite, she is very concerned about being in productions which are superficial or trite. I think she thought Mary’s concept was too restrained and too traditional, whereas in fact I think that Mary’s concept had that appearance but was much more dramatically viable and interesting.”
Zimmerman told me that there were certainly times during the production of “Lucia” when she wanted to kill her bloody heroine—“and I am sure she wanted to kill me, too,” she says. But their collaboration on “Sonnambula” seemed to be progressing without murderous impulses, and Zimmerman was unstinting in her praise of Dessay. “She is a showman,” Zimmerman said. “She knows how to turn the whole auditorium on herself. There are moments in ‘Lucia’ where there just is such an act of unity in the room, and she stills the room so entirely that it becomes akin to a church.” Zimmerman added, “My bottom line about Natalie is she’s either proof that God exists or compensation that he doesn’t.” When I passed this evaluation along to Dessay over tea in an Upper West Side café after a rehearsal at the Met, she responded with laughter, but could not quite summon an equivalent compliment for her director.
Dessay considered withdrawing from “La Sonnambula” after the experience of “Lucia.” “I was this close,” she told me in Vienna, holding her finger and thumb an inch apart. “But then I thought, first, I have to earn my living. And, second, I thought that it was a challenge, for her and for me. And actually we get along together very well, because she is a nice and intelligent person, and I think she has good ideas. Peter Gelb told me she is brilliant, and Peter Gelb himself is brilliant, and so he wouldn’t say that if it wasn’t true.”
She was resolved to be open-minded about “Sonnambula,” she told me before arriving in New York; and, once here, she certainly seemed to be committed to the endeavor, even if she was guarded in her appraisal of the postmodern frame that Zimmerman had given the production. “At the beginning, I felt that the concept didn’t carry all the way through—it was just an idea to wrap it in beautiful paper. But after three weeks of rehearsals I think we are going to make it work.” She went on, “It’s an attempt to escape the convention, but it’s very difficult, because we don’t want to go against the music, which is so delicate and refined—we don’t want to be an elephant in a porcelain shop, as we say in French.” We were speaking after I had seen her rehearsing with members of the chorus, who were shunning her after her first sleepwalking escapade. (They responded by tearing up their scores, and otherwise trashing the mock rehearsal room.) “Mary told me the other day, ‘We have a different approach to theatre. It’s like a difference of religion,’ ” Dessay said. “So we have to respect each other, and live together, the way people who don’t have the same religion do.”
Last year, Dessay attempted another new role at the Met: as host of a high-definition broadcast, to be beamed live to movie theatres worldwide. She was required to introduce the opera—“the sad, horrible story of ‘Peter Grimes,’ ” as she put it—and interview the star, the conductor, the director, and other participants. Dessay performed the unfamiliar role of on-camera interviewer with relish and wit, and this year she was asked for a reprise. She was to introduce the broadcast of a production of “Lucia” in which Anna Netrebko was playing the heroine. (“I should introduce it as the sad, horrible story of ‘Lucia di Lammermoor,’ ” she joked.) A few days in advance of the broadcast, Dessay spent an evening at the Met when Netrebko was performing, for a test run of her own role.
Half an hour before the curtain was to rise, Dessay was perched on a couch at the entrance to the dressing rooms; the cast and Met staff members congregate there during performances. Dressed in yoga clothes, she was scribbling on a script that had been provided for her, striking out questions and inserting new ones. Someone came and clipped a remote microphone pack onto the waistband of her pants, and it immediately fell off. “There’s the proof I’ve never worn one!” she said. With minutes to go before the performance began, Dessay was met by her cameraman, sound technician, and other members of the production team, and was led from the dressing rooms to the wings, where she could walk onto a narrow strip of stage behind a scrim, remaining concealed from the settling audience’s view. As Dessay crossed the stage from left to right, she encountered the hummocks of her despised heath and took up her old position. The orchestra, warming up in the pit, sounded as if it were just inches away. Choristers milled in the wings, waiting to make their entrance, and a pair of bloodhounds—animal extras—sniffed hotly around.
The camera rolled, and Dessay, with an animated smile, launched into her welcoming remarks. The muddled sound of the orchestra resolved into the regular bowing of strings that indicates the imminent start of the overture. “Maestro to the pit,” a stage manager said into an intercom, and there was applause from the auditorium as, evidently, Marco Armiliato took his bow. Dessay was still talking to the camera as if doing the six o’clock news, unruffled by the mounting air of urgency among the crew. “Get off the stage!” someone shouted.
“And now Act I of ‘Lucia di Lammermoor,’ a victim of men and circumstance,” Dessay said. The cameraman scuttled backward while she, with perfect poise, descended the heath as if there were nowhere she felt more at home, disappearing into the wings as the curtain rose. ♦