A much-loved native daughter of Washington, D.C., celebrated mezzo- soprano Denyce Graves is international opera's newest star. USA Today has predicted that Graves will likely be one of the twenty-first century's operatic superstars. In her signature role as Bizet's sultry, passionate Carmen, she has won glowing reviews worldwide. Jerry Schwartz noted in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that critics have called her Carmen "one of the most stunning performances ever of that storied role." The Wall Street Journal called her "the hottest Carmen on the opera circuit today," and Martin Feinstein, former general director of the Washington Opera, stated simply, "she is the definitive Carmen."
Following a three-year apprenticeship with the Houston Grand Opera, where she made her debut as Hansel in Hansel and Gretel in 1989, Graves took the operatic world by storm. She has sung with tenor legends Placido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti, and Jose Carreras. She has appeared on the stages of the world's most famous opera houses, including the Vienna State Opera, La Scala in Milan, and the Royal Opera in London's Covent Garden. Graves made her debut at New York's Metropolitan Opera to critical acclaim in the fall of 1995, in the title role of Carmen.
Reviewers have been effusive in their descriptions of Graves's voice. In 1997 Tony Kornheiser wrote in the Washington Post, "Denyce Graves's voice is spectacular. It's so clear and clean you feel you can see through it." Herbert Kupferberg described it as "sumptuous but mercifully light and flexible" in Parade in 1994 and in a 1994 article for American Record Guide, David Reynolds called it "a full and voluptuous instrument indeed." Others were more specific. Reviewer Anthony Tommasini wrote in the New York Times in 1995 that Graves has "a classic mezzo-soprano voice with dusky colorings and a wide range, from her chesty low voice to her gleaming top notes." Schwartz described it as "quite distinctive--rich, burnished, deep." He concluded, "Her wonderfully tasteful musicianship allows it to project with a directness that few singers in any age have been able to manage."
Denyce Antionette Graves was born March 7, 1964 to Charles Graves and Dorothy (Middleton) Graves-Kenner. The middle child of three, Denyce and her siblings were raised by their mother on Galveston Street in southwest Washington, D.C. Charles Graves walked out on his family when Denyce was not yet two and his youngest daughter not yet born. Dorothy Graves worked hard to support her family, first as a laundress and then as a clerk typist at Federal City College--now the University of the District of Columbia. "Our neighborhood was tough and chaotic ... and very poor," Graves told Marilyn Milloy of Essence. "Violence, drugs, hopelessness, despair--it was all there. Yet with all that, my mother held her ground and built a solid foundation for our little family."
Dorothy Graves built that foundation on a bedrock of love, discipline, and faith. She was strict, making sure her children had no spare time in which to find trouble. Regular chores and homework filled much of their after-school time, and Dorothy took care of the rest by scheduling various activities for the evenings, such as sewing, report writing, gospel singing, and church attendance. "Thursday night was always for our singing group. I loved to sing early on," Graves told Essence. Popular music was forbidden in the Graves home, as were certain television shows that Dorothy felt portrayed blacks in a demeaning manner. As a result of this sheltered upbringing, Denyce was neither familiar with nor especially interested in whatever was considered "cool" at the time. Consequently, she stood out as different from her peers. Classmates called her "Hollywood" merely because she was aloof. Her mother balanced the discipline with encouragement. She told her children they were special, that their throats and brains had been kissed by God, that they could do anything.
Graves's first mentor was her elementary school music teacher, Judith Grove, who, through a series of job changes, followed her to Friendship Junior High and on to high school. Impressed by the girl's commitment to hard work and her serious attitude toward music, in 1977 Grove encouraged her to apply to Duke Ellington School of the Arts, a public performing arts high school in Georgetown. Graves won admittance by passing an audition. Although her mother had serious qualms at the prospect, Graves did not.
She felt immediately at home at Ellington. She no longer stood out; all the students there were committed, working toward similar goals. She recalled in an article in the Washingtonian, "I felt that I could finally breathe. There have been few things in my life where I said 'This is it,' but when I walked through that door, there was a rightness in my bones about it."
While a student at Ellington, Graves saw her first opera. She was 14. Attending a dress rehearsal at the Kennedy Center for Beethoven's Fidelio, she was captivated. Some time after that, a teacher gave her a recording of Marilyn Horne singing an aria from the opera Cavalleria Rusticana. Playing the aria until she had it memorized, Graves determined to become an opera singer.
Graves finished high school in just two years, graduating in 1981. She was offered scholarships to several colleges, but chose the Oberlin College Conservatory in Ohio. The school had offered only a partial scholarship, so she worked several jobs to make ends meet. At Oberlin she studied under reknowned voice teacher Helen Hodam. Reaching mandatory retirement age in 1984, Hodam left Oberlin to teach at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, and Graves followed her there. Working up to three jobs at a time to support herself, it would take her four more years to graduate. She earned her Bachelor of Music in 1988.
Before she graduated, Graves entered the Metropolitan Opera Regional Auditions in 1986. She won. "I had to win," she told the New York Times. "I was four months behind in my rent. I couldn't pay for the rented dress I was wearing." When she got to New York to sing in the finals, however, she was stricken with a mysterious throat ailment. It got worse as she sang. Forced to withdraw from the competition, she saw 11 specialists before the problem was diagnosed as a treatable thyroid condition. Disheartened, she took a secretarial position and did not sing again for a year.
Then Graves received a series of phone calls that would change her life. The Houston Grand Opera called to invite her to audition for its opera studio, a young artists training program. The disaster of the Metro finals was too fresh an experience, and Graves said thank you, but her singing days were over. Houston called again a couple of months later and renewed the offer. Her answer was still thanks, but no thanks. Six weeks passed and Houston called a third time. This time, friends persuaded her that this was meant to be, so she flew to Texas to audition. She had not sung in more than a year. She took her time warming up, and then sang Carmen's seguidilla. New York quoted Graves as saying of the experience, "That day I sang better than when I was well and in good voice. It was a revelation from God."
Graves spent three years in Houston. She told Essence that her life changed completely. "My job there was to do supporting roles or cover for other mezzos as well as grunge work--singing in the malls at Christmas time, things like that," she said. "But I also met the great tenor Placido Domingo, and from that point on things began to happen." Impressed with her talent and drive, Domingo became her mentor.
Her debut in a lead role came in 1989 in Houston, as Hansel in Hansel and Gretel. Graves was invited to sing in the Tucker Foundation's 1990 Gala Concert, which was broadcast nationally in 1991 on PBS's Great Performances. Building on her Houston apprenticeship, she has proven herself a major talent ever since. She has sung leading roles in all the most respected opera houses in the world. Although she had sung other roles early in her career, her characterization of Carmen generated the most excitement. By early 1996 she had sung in more than 30 productions of that opera. Hailed by enthusiastic critics as "the world's reigning Carmen," it has become her signature role. In a 1995 review in the New York Times, Tommasini wrote, "She is a compelling stage actress who exude[s] the sensuality that any Carmen must have but few do." Tim Page observed in the Washington Post, "We do not merely listen to her Carmen, we experience it; she not only sings the role of the fiery Gypsy girl, she embodies her." She made her much-anticipated debut at New York's Metropolitan Opera in 1995 as Carmen. Linda Killian noted in the Washingtonian in 1996, "Whenever an opera house anywhere in the world thinks about doing a production of Carmen, Graves is at the top of the list. She has reached the point where she says no to Carmen as often as she says yes." The reason, Killian explained, is that "Domingo and others have warned her that she mustn't become typecast, that she needs to expand her repertoire and her voice by doing other roles." Graves explained the benefit of other roles to her voice in New York. "Mozart and bel canto--I swear to God, they make your voice better. They're difficult, especially for a voice like mine. My voice is broad. It's fat. I need to work to line it up, to make it skinny. With Carmen you have to watch out. It's so theatrical. It can take the sheen off the voice and get it out of line, make it hard." Recent seasons have found her in roles as varied as Baba the Turk in Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress, Charlotte in Massenet's Werther, and Dalila in Saint-Saens's Samson et Dalila. In 1997 and 1998 she sang several recitals and concerts around the United States. She has sung at the White House and performed with Placido Domingo on his Concert for the Planet Earth, which was broadcast worldwide from the United States summit on the environment in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.
In 1990 Graves married classical guitar importer David Perry. They met the year before while performing with the Wolf Trap Opera Company in Virginia. Perry was a lutenist in the orchestra. He travels with Graves much of the time, handling details for her and calming her nerves before performances by playing classical guitar for her. "My husband is a rock in this whole crazy turbulence of a career," Graves told the Christian Science Monitor. They have a home in Leesburg, Virginia.
Graves is conscious of being a role model for black children, just as Leontyne Price was an early inspiration for her. She is also grateful to those who broke the operatic color barrier before her. Her own struggles to reach the top, she told Ebony, "are nothing in comparison to the suffering of those people who allowed me to be in the position that I'm in today." In spite of her meteoric rise to stardom, Graves has encountered racism, and believes she has lost out on roles because she is black. And, having pursued a career in what has been traditionally an elitist art form dominated and controlled by whites, she has been criticized by blacks for wanting to be "white." Responding to those who would try to pigeonhole her as one thing or another, Graves had this to say to the Atlanta Journal- Constitution in 1996: "Anyone who thinks the world of international opera is any easier for black people than anything else has never been there. But bitterness can eat a hole in your soul." Killian noted in The Washingtonian that Graves strives to leave race aside as she hones her craft. She wrote, "Graves does not want to be a black opera singer. She want to be an opera singer who happens to be black."
Having reached the top, Graves's struggle continues. "The key in this business is not only about getting your foot in the door," she told Essence, "it's about demanding such a standard of excellence from yourself that you stay in the room. The ultimate goal, in my opinion, is for people to flock to the theatre not only to see Carmen, but to see Denyce Graves." If her bookings--which stretch into the next century--are any indication, Denyce Graves will be staying in the room for many years to come.
Graves was a student at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, an elite DC public high school which is not too far from where I live. Often, Ellington students ride the same bus I do. High school students riding the metro or the bus here can be full of animal spirits after school--they laugh, they're loud, they eat food (illegal on the metro), they sprawl over a couple of seats and ignore the other riders. The Ellington students have their fun, but they're also friendly and polite. Two years ago, I had a NANOWRIMO tattoo on my forearm, and several of these students, who had moved over to let me sit down, noticed it and asked where I got it. I told them about National Novel Writing Month, and they were delighted to know such a thing existed. "Good luck with your novel," they said when I got off the bus.
Next time I'm on public transportation here in the late afternoon, and a bunch of high school kids get on, I'll be paying attention to see if any of them looks as if he or she could have Denyce Graves's potential for hard work and stardom. You never know with kids....