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An Interview with
Natalie Dessay

By Joel Kasow

LYONS, France. 12 October 1998 - Towards the end of the run of Robert Carsen's production of Britten's Midsummer Night's Dream last April at the Opéra National de Lyon, OperaNet had the pleasure of meeting with Natalie Dessay to discuss her career and plans. She cancelled performances of Lakmé one month later, because of her pregnancy, saying "if I want to be logical with respect to what I have to say about the theater, I also have to follow my precepts ". This has not stopped her from playing Titania and preparing for concert performances and a subsequent recording of Mozart's Mitridate.
Natalie Dessay


Operanet: How old were you when you discovered you had a voice?

Natalie Dessay: I was 20. Before that, I wanted to be an actress. I was supposed to sing in a play I was performing, and I started to take singing lessons so that it would be all right. That's when they told me I had a nice voice and I should study singing.

Operanet: With whom did you study?

ND: No one you ever heard of, private lessons.

Operanet: You never attended the conservatory?

ND: Yes, but that's not where I learned to sing. You don't learn to sing at the conservatory, as we all know.

Operanet: I read that you consider acting almost more important than singing...

ND: It is more important. For me, singing and music are only a means of expression, the goal being a theatrical and emotional experience.

Operanet: Would you say, for example, that it is 60% acting and 40% music?

ND: No, for me it would be 70% theater and 30% music and voice, which is not to say that it is unimportant, because you must have that 30%. You can't say, "I act and I don't care if I don't sing well." You must sing well and make music, be a musician. But that's only 30% of the singer's work, even if that 30% is primordial.

Operanet: When I saw you in the role of Ophélie in Hamlet (by Ambroise Thomas) in Geneva, I wrote that you sang in just about any position other than one comfortable for singing.

ND: Definitely, because if you want to sing without moving around, all you have to do is give concerts.

Operanet: Yes, but if you are all twisted?

ND: It's harder, but it's more fun. It's more amusing, and I think that physical expression is also part of the theater. You shouldn't hesitate to act as in real life. You don't always stand with your feet firmly planted to say what you want or do what you want. You use your body in all sorts of positions depending on whether you are suffering, you're happy, and in fact you don't even think about it. You don't say, "I'm going to put my feet up against the wall because it will be fun". No, it's because you think it is important for the character to let himself go physically at that moment.

Natalie Dessay jouant Euridice

Operanet: I can certify that you are an extraordinary actress, not only the Ophélie in Geneva, but Euridice in Lyons and Olympia in several productions of Contes d'Hoffmann. I saw the one in Lyons where you spent much of the opera folded up in a sort of cage.

ND: It was quite impressive; I really enjoyed working with Louis Erlo. It was a very personal viewpoint, not everyone liked it, but for me it's the direction in which opera should go, towards a theatrical experience. You must take a chance if you want something to happen and not just try to do the 100th Contes d'Hoffmann as it was done 30 years ago. That's not interesting. What is interesting is to do something new each time, especially with operas that are not new, stories that are not new, music that is not new - try to bring something theatrically new, a breath of fresh air. That is what I consider today's opera.

Operanet: How do you prepare your roles?

ND: With the director. I have great confidence in the director. I like to be guided; I am the material that he works with, like a sculptor.

Operanet: And a role like Olympia that you have sung in three or four different productions, how does that work?

ND: I try each time to start from scratch. I like directors who have lots of imagination, because if they don't, I get bored. And if the doll is only a doll, then it doesn't work for me.

Operanet: I can believe that. What was she in Vienna?

ND: She was a doll, but a bit mad and slightly silly even comical.

Operanet: And at La Scala?

ND: At La Scala, she was a bit sadistic, breaking everything she touched, and moreover she was pregnant. In Lyons, she wasn't a doll, but a human being, autistic, who was completely awake only when Hoffmann touched her. It was a very personal production in several senses, theatrically and musically.

Operanet: And then you also can do comedy, like Euridice (Orphée aux Enfers) which is rather far removed from such tragic figures?

ND: It's amusing, and I was happy to work with Laurent Pelly and Marc Minkowski, it was the first time with both of them, and they are both people with lots of fantasy. It was easy to put together our three imaginations in order to arrive at something totally insane.

Operanet: I saw the production in Geneva, and it was completely different from what I saw in Lyons.

ND: Yes, Annick Massis has a completely different personality, and that's what I find interesting at the opera, to see the same role interpreted by very different performers who each bring something different, who sing differently, who have different timbres and who present a personage that is totally different from anyone else, even when it's the same production of the same opera with the same music.

Operanet: I just listened to your new cd, "Vocalises". It's not at all what we expect from you.

ND: It's not intellectual. (laugh) It wasn't my idea. I didn't want to make this type of disc, but Alain Lanceron finally convinced me and I think he was right because what really interests me is to sing as many different things as possible. Not only is it different from anything I had done until then, but at the same time it is definitely part of my repertoire. You can't reject it or deny its existence; it's nice to try and do something different from what has been the norm and at the same time offer homage to a number of singers who once sang these items regularly, because it was part of their lives, their repertoire. Today it's a bit out of style, but it's amusing nonetheless.

Operanet: You could say the same thing about such roles as Lakmé which you have sung a great deal these last few years or Amina (Sonnambula) which you are soon going to tackle. What's the attraction for you?

Natalie Dessay / Lakmé

ND: It's on a different level for Lakmé; that was the signature role for many coloratura sopranos, so I wanted to see what it would be like for me since that is what I am and I do my best to shoulder the burden. I must say that I greatly enjoyed myself in the role because it's very delicate music that needs a lot of care to succeed. Otherwise it quickly becomes tiresome and boring, nothing but candy. It's more than that, it's the exotic world as seen by 19th century France that didn't travel. It's amusing from that point of view as well. I've only performed in one production, but I would like to do another for a change, to see if there is still more to the piece.

Operanet: And Amina?

ND: That's for the end of 1998, and the attraction is that it will be my first bel canto opera - I've never done any bel canto. In fact, I've never sung in Italian. It's really astonishing that in my seven years of career that I have sung only in French and German. An opera singer who has never sung in Italian is rather extraordinairy. I am pleased because it's something new. I don't like to do the same thing all the time because I quickly lose interest.

Operanet: When we spoke three years ago, you said that perhaps in ten or fifteen years you would think about operas like Lulu or Lucia, and now they're coming up soon.

ND: Lulu is in two years, but the two-act version. In Vienna, they only want to do what Berg wrote, which I can understand. And the third act, even if it contributes to our understanding of the characters, is very long and rather boring. If I ever do that version, I would like them to cut a bit in the Paris act which is interminable.

Operanet: And Lucia?

ND: I'm doing the French version, which is a bit lighter - you don't have "Regnava nel silenzio". The other aria isn't that easy, but it is closer to my vocal type, I think.

Operanet: And it's in French?

ND: Yes, the French version, which is not simply a translation but a genuine French version by Donizetti.

Operanet: And after that, what do you have your eye on?

ND: I would like to sing Lucia in Italian after having sung Lucie in French, but I have the time; we'll see about Puritani later on - I've already been asked, but I don't know if I'll do it. I'm not really sure about doing the bel canto repertoire, because since Callas we tend to think about that music with a darker color voice than the coloratura.

Operanet: And Traviata?

ND: Frankly, that's not for me. As an actress, yes, but not as a singer. But for my own pleasure, in about 15 years, before retiring or even for my retirement.


We talk about singers who have sung some of their roles more than 200 times.


ND: That's a nightmare - after about 30 performances, that's enought. Except perhaps roles like Zerbinetta, roles that are more fulfilling, or there is a text that evolves along with you. There aren't that many roles that are really "nousihing" because the texts are too indigent. Perhaps Susanna, but I haven't sung the role yet; I will in 2001 for the first time in Vienna.

Operanet: Have you thought about what you might do when you stop singing?

ND: I'm not going to stop too late, I want people to say "Why are you stopping?", rather than waiting until they say "Ouf". I'd like to have another life, another profession. I wouldn't know how to teach, I would have neither the patience nor the ability. I think I can help people, but teaching every day, regularly, for years, I don't think so. I would like to be an artist's agent to help younger performers with their careers. They need advice and attention. And to learn how to wait, not sing too much, and at the same time work hard to allow themselves to mature.

Operanet: Have you thought about being an actress?

ND: No, I think you have to know your limits. It's another profession. I'm good at singing opera, but that's it. I would love to, but it's another type of work, a profession to be learned. I don't think you can just suddenly become an actor. The theater I'll leave to the professionals. As much as I detest actors who suddenly become singers, I also hate singers who suddenly turn actor.

Operanet: What do you think of the crossover trend?

ND: It can be interesting. I think that someone like Dawn Upshaw has done it very well. She's the only one who has managed, her Rodgers et Hart album, for example.

Operanet: And the other direction?

ND: Do you mean Michael Bolton?

Operanet: Or Andrea Bocelli?

ND: Bocelli at least has a technique. You might not like him, but he at least knows about singing, so I wouldn't really call that crossover. I would call him an opera singer who sings in a popular style. I don't know what he sounds like live, but it's nice enough on disc. It's not my kind of music, but that's his choice. As far as the others go, I don't know Michael Bolton, but I'd be curious to hear what he's done before offering an opinion. You can't just go and do something like that. When I see how hard I have to work, I don't think that a person who has never trained operatically can suddenly say, "Hey, I'm going to sing an aria!" It would be the same thing if I started singing tenor arias. Yes, I could, but why? What I would like is to have someone compose something for me. There are some musicians whose work I like, Björk, for example, who is really quite interesting. I would really like it if she composed something for me..

Operanet: To sing in a recital?

ND: That's not possible,because she works with lots of instruments, machinery. [total surprise that I have never heard of this singer from Iceland, with her mixture of techno and other pop music] It has nothing to do with the opera, of course. For the moment I have to learn Lulu, so the problem is being deferred. I've given myself until November to get through the score and after that we'll see..

Operanet: Is learning a new role a problem for you, particularly Lulu?

ND: Yes, everything is a problem. Even learning Mozart, Mitridate for example, which I am singing soon, what's difficult are the recitatives. Even if you learn the arias quickly, they're so hard to sing that you have to sing them 500 times before you feel them in your bones. I'd love to do it more rapidly, but I'm slow. I don't read music that well and I have no memory, which doesn't help. Everyone has his Achilles heel. But Lulu is the challenge [in English] of my life.


Recordings by Natalie Dessay:

Offenbach: Les Contes d'Hoffmann Click here to read the review(Olympia)
Alagna, Jo, Vaduva, van Dam; Opéra de Lyon, Nagano - Erato

Mozart: Die Zauberflöte (Königin der Nacht)
Mannion, Blochwitz, Scharinger, Hagen, White; Arts Florissants, Christie - Erato

Délibes: Lakmé (title role)
Kunde, van Dam; Théâtre du Capitole, Plasson - EMI

Mozart: Airs de Concert
Opéra de Lyon, Guschlbauer - EMI

Airs d'Opéras Français Click here to read the review
Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte Carlo, Fourniller - EMI

Vocalises Click here to read the review
Berliner Symphonieorchester, Schønwandt - EMI

Recordings to be released:

Mozart: Mitridate (Aspasia)
Bartoli, Piau, Asawa, Sabbatini; Talens Lyriques, Rousset- Oiseau-Lyre

Offenbach: Orphée aux Enfers (Euridice)
Podles, Fouchécourt, Beuron, Naouri; Opéra de Lyon, Minkowski

Projects:

Stravinsky: Rossignol - EMI


PHOTOS

Top: Grand Théâtre de Genève / Rehearsal photo - Hamlet. Photo: GTC/ Carole Parodi

Centre: Opéra National de Lyon / Orphée aux enfers. Photo: Gérard Amsellem

Bottom: Opéra Comique, Paris / Lakmé. Photo: Jacques Moatti.

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