Parader of the lost art
Superstar soprano Natalie Dessay knows how to get butts back in the opera seats.
Natalie Dessay admits singing only gets in the way of what she really wants to accomplish on stage—acting. Born in Lyon, France, the diva holds theater—not the aria-belting craft that’s given her global fame—closest to her heart. For Dessay, opera should move toward a greater emphasis on emotion with more substantive texts rather than frivolous librettos. Hoping for a theatrical revolution to sweep through a centuries-old institution, she wryly jokes, “Sometimes miracles happen.”
It’s fortunate, then, that the 43-year-old Dessay collaborates with David McVicar, who’s worked in theater, for her lead role in Manon, Lyric Opera’s season opener premiering Saturday 27. She already has a head start, after starring last year in his Barcelona production of Jules Massenet’s 1884 opera. Dessay adores the Scottish director’s authentically grungy early-18th-century sets—right in line with her opinion that opera is mostly a visual art accompanied by music. She also praises the “actor’s director’s” rapport with the cast, as well as his method: “Very, very precise. Lots of details. And he’s so involved with us in every way.”
Yet when we called Dessay’s hotel room, her attention wasn’t on the role she’s scheduled to sing in just a couple of weeks. “After 70 performances of Manon, I live it,” she says. Now she’s practicing for her new character, Debussy’s Mélisande, which she’ll perform in January in Vienna. After playing Marie earlier this year in Gaetano Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment, now Manon and soon Mélisande, Dessay tells us the French school of bright, almost-piercing singing has undergone a gradual shift to the Italian fashion: warmer, fuller singing in the higher registers. The Paris resident hopes that transition is finally complete. She’d also like to improve upon the numerous productions she sees that are “dusty and not properly rehearsed.” In her utopia, singers, like theater actors, would rehearse for eight weeks instead of the usual three or four.
Her Manon will be wooed by the emerging German tenor Jonas Kaufmann, 39, in the role of the Chevalier des Grieux, marking their first onstage partnership. Dessay speaks so authoritatively on the production that one senses she’s the one behind the curtain running Oz. When we ask if Kaufmann will make a suitable counterpart, she slips: “Of course. That’s why I picked him up!” she says with a laugh. “Okay, okay, we picked him up. He knows exactly how to act and make music at the same time.”
Dessay is encouraged that the current generation of singers has begun to give both acting and singing equal weight; the heavier emphasis on theater could even bring in new fans. Yet some opera houses have, perhaps, a better idea—sex. To promote Dessay’s turn as Donizetti’s Lucia last fall, the Met infamously plastered her seductively fragile pose on Manhattan buses and trains, suggesting a supermodel’s ad campaign. Yet she resists the notion she has any sex-symbol allure. “I couldn’t [be one], anyway,” she says. “My two children hate it when they see me kiss tenors.”
Manon premieres at the Civic Opera House on Saturday 27.