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
ND: No one you ever heard of, private lessons.
Operanet: You never attended the conservatory?
Yes, but that's not where I learned to sing. You don't learn to sing
at the conservatory, as we all know.
read that you consider acting almost more important than singing...
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.
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.
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.
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
Operanet: How do you prepare your
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.
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.
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
Operanet: I saw the production in
Geneva, and it was completely different from what I saw in Lyons.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.
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.
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
Operanet: And it's in French?
Yes, the French version, which is not simply a translation but a
genuine French version by Donizetti.
after that, what do you have your eye on?
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
Operanet: And Traviata?
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.
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.
you thought about what you might do when you stop singing?
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.
And the other direction?
ND: Do you mean Michael
Operanet: Or Andrea Bocelli?
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..
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..
learning a new role a problem for you, particularly Lulu?
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
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
Lakmé (title role)
Kunde, van Dam; Théâtre
du Capitole, Plasson - EMI
Mozart: Airs de Concert
de Lyon, Guschlbauer - EMI
Airs d'Opéras Français
Click here to read the
Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte Carlo, Fourniller -
here to read the review
Berliner Symphonieorchester, Schønwandt
to be released:
Bartoli, Piau, Asawa, Sabbatini; Talens Lyriques, Rousset-
Offenbach: Orphée aux Enfers
Podles, Fouchécourt, Beuron, Naouri; Opéra
de Lyon, Minkowski
Stravinsky: Rossignol - EMI
Top: Grand Théâtre de Genève
/ Rehearsal photo - Hamlet. Photo: GTC/ Carole Parodi
Opéra National de Lyon / Orphée aux enfers. Photo:
Bottom: Opéra Comique, Paris /
Lakmé. Photo: Jacques Moatti.