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Graves, Denyce

Denyce Graves

1964–

Opera singer

Mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves has realized USA Today's prediction that she would become one of the twenty-first century's operatic superstars. As Bizet's sultry, passionate Carmen, she 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." But in an industry where singers often get pigeonholed by particular roles, Graves resisted being limited. "I'm more than Carmen," Graves noted in the Los Angeles Times in 1999. She is indeed. Graves' goal for herself, as she told the Philadelphia Tribune, is "artistic independence."

Rose to Opera Stardom Early

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. Cultivating her role 1991, 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 wonder-fully tasteful musicianship allows it to project with a directness that few singers in any age have been able to manage."

Emerged from Difficult Childhood

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.

Found Refuge in School

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.

At a Glance …

Born Denyce Antoinette Graves on March 7, 1964, in Washington, D.C., daughter of Charles Graves (now a minister) and Dorothy (Middleton) Graves (now Graves-Kenner, then a clerk typist at Federal City College); married David Perry, 1990. Education: B. Mus. New England Conservatory of Music, 1988.

Career: Mezzo-soprano opera singer, 1989–.

Memberships: American Guild of Musical Artists; Panel member, Washington Opera Open Forum, 1991; active supporter, African National Congress, Boston, 1985.

Awards: First place, Northeast Metropolitan Opera Regional Auditions, 1987; Metropolitan Opera finalist, 1988; recipient, Richard F. Gold Career grant, Houston Grand Opera, 1989; recipient, Grand Prix du Concours International de Chant de Paris, 1990; recipient, Jacobson Study Grant, Richard Tucker Music Foundation, NYC, 1990; recipient, National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1990; recipient, Metropolitan Opera grant, 1990; recipient, Grand Prix Lyrique, Association des amis de l'opera de Monte-Carlo, 1991; Marion Anderson Award, 1991; one of 10 Women of the Year, Glamour magazine, 1997; Honorary Doctorate, Oberlin College Conservatory, 1998.

Addresses: Agent—c/o Jeffrey D. Vanderveen, IMG Artists, 616 Chiswick High Road, London W4 5RX, United Kingdom; Web—www.denycegraves.com.

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 scholar-ship, so she worked several jobs to make ends meet. At Oberlin she studied under renowned 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.

Launched Career

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.

Wins Worldwide Acclaim with Carmen

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."

And she has found various roles, including 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 2005, Graves introduced a new role to the stage in the world premier of Margaret Garner, the story of a slave girl, at the Michigan Opera Theatre in Detroit. She has sung at the White House on numerous occasions 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. Her performances have also been featured on PBS several times.

Carefully Crafts Image

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 African American. 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 wants to be an opera singer who happens to be black."

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. Perry created Carmen Productions to promote Graves' career through television and recording projects. "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.

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." To enhance her career, Graves added steady bookings for concerts, recitals, and recordings to balance her work. More than just a way to keep her "in the room," these activities served another purpose. As quoted in Afro-American Red Star, Graves said, "I think it's important to use the voice in different ways. A steady diet of opera is very heavy for the voice."

Graves understands the power of her talent. She made a national name for herself. President and Mrs. Bush requested that she sing at a national memorial service held at the Washington National Cathedral after the terrorist attacks in 2001. She branched out from the music industry to become what Opera News described as "sort of a diva-as-mini-corporation." She launched perfume and jewelry lines, and was subject of a 2003 PBS documentary called Denyce Graves: Breaking the Rules. Appointed a Cultural Ambassador for the United States in 2003, Graves also represents the State Department on international missions of peace. If her career thus far is any indication, Denyce Graves will remain in the limelight for years to come.

Selected discography

Concert For Planet Earth, Sony Classical, 1993.
Otello, Deutsche Grammophon, 1993.
Hamlet, EMI, 1993.
Recital Denyce Graves: Heroines de l'Opera romantique Francais, FNAC Music, 1993.
Angels Watching Over Me, NPR Classics, 1998.
Denyce Graves: A Cathedral Christmas, PBS Productions, 1998.
Voce di Donna, BMG/RCA Red Seal, 1999.
Memorial, Carmen Productions, 2001.
Lost Days: Music in the Latin Style, BMG/RCA Red Seal, 2003.
Denyce Graves: French Opera Arias, Virgin Classics, 2004.
Kaleidoscope, Carmen Productions, 2004.

Sources

Periodicals

American Record Guide, September/October 1994.

Atlanta Journal-Constitution, November 16, 1997, November 17, 1997.

Christian Science Monitor, July 24, 1996.

Cincinnati Enquirer, February 21, 2003.

Classic FM, November 2002.

Ebony, February 1996.

Essence, September 1996.

Glamour, December 1997.

Los Angeles Times, January 21, 1996; September 5, 1999.

New York, September 11, 1995.

New York Post, January 10, 2003.

New York Times, December 28, 1997, October 14, 1995, October 9, 1995.

Opera News, September 2001.

Opera Night, May/June 1998.

Parade, May 29, 1994.

People Weekly, October 23, 1995.

Reader's Digest, February 1997.

Tampa Tribune, February 10, 2003.

Theatre Bio, Suzanne Stephens Arts Services, June 1998.

Wall Street Journal, April 4, 1995.

Washingtonian, December 1996.

Washington Post, January 19, 1997, June 8, 1996, October 9, 1995, March 26, 1995, February 24, 1991, September 28, 1989.

On-line

"Denyce Graves: Breaking the Rules," The National Music Education Site: WHYY, www.whyy.org/education/denycegraves/about_show.html (July 12, 2006).

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Graves, Denyce 1964–

Denyce Graves 1964

Opera singer

Nurtured on Galveston Street

Discovered Opera

Throat Ailment Suspended Career Plan

The Worlds Reigning Carmen

Selected discography

Sources

A much-loved native daughter of Washington, D.C., celebrated mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves is international operas newest star. USA Today has predicted that Graves will likely be one of the twenty-first centurys operatic superstars. In her signature role as Bizets 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 worlds most famous opera houses, including the Vienna State Opera, La Scala in Milan, and the Royal Opera in Londons Covent Garden. Graves made her debut at New Yorks Metropolitan Opera to critical acclaim in the fall of 1995, in the title role of Carmen.

Reviewers have been effusive in their descriptions of Gravess voice. In 1997 Tony Kornheiser wrote in the Washington Post, Denyce Gravess voice is spectacular. Its 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 distinctiverich, 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.

Nurtured on Galveston Street

Denyce Antionette Graves was born March 7, 1964 to Charles Graves and Dorothy (Middleton) Graves-Kenner.

At a Glance

Born Denyce Antoinette Graves, March 7, 1964, in Washington, D.C., daughter of Charles Graves (now a minister) and Dorothy (Middleton) Graves (now Graves-Kenner, then a clerk typist at Federal City Coll). Education: B. Mus. New England Conservatory of Music, 1988.

Career: Mezzo-soprano opera singer. Debuted as Hansel in Hansel and Gretel, 1989, Suzuki in Madame Butterfly, 1990, Houston Grand Opera; as Maddalena in Rigoletto, D.C., Opera, 1991; as Carmen in Carmen, Minnesota Opera, 1991, Metropolitan Opera, Dallas Opera, Opernhaus Zurich; as Baba the Turk in The Rakes Progress, Chatelet, Paris; Charlotte in Werther, Genoa, Italy; Cuniza in Oberto, Royal Opera, London; Adalgisa in Norma, and many others. Performed on numerous PBS progs, 1990-91; TV panel member, BET TV, 1990; many solo recitals and concerts; participant in educ. outreach progs, with Opera, Grand Rapids, Ml, 1991, Opera Theatre of St. Louis, 1990, and Houston Grand Opera, 1990; performer, Gala Concert, Tucker Found., 1990, broadcast nationally on PBS Great Performances, 1991; performer, with Placido Domingo, Concert for Planet Earth, for United Nations Summit on the Environment, Rio de Janeiro, 1992.

Memberships: Amer. Guild of Musical Artists; Panel mem., Washington Opera Open Forum, 1991; active supporter, African Natl. Congress, Boston, 1985.

Selected awards: First place, Northeast MetroOpera Regional Auditions, 1987; recipient, Richard F. Gold Career grant, Houston Grand Opera, 1989; recipient, Grand Prix du Concours Intl. de Chant de Paris, 1990; recipient, Jacobsooon Study Grant, Richard Tucker Music Found., NYC, 1990; recipient, Natl. Endowment for the Arts grant, 1990; recipient, Metro Opera grant, 1990; recipient, Grand Prix Lyrique, Assn. des amis de lopera de Monte-Carlo, 1991; Marion Anderson Award, 1991; Honorary Doctorate, Oberlin College Conservatory, 1998.

Addresses: Public Relations c/o Suzanne Stephens Arts Services, 1714 N. Bryan St., Arlington, VA 22201; Mgr c/o William G. Guerri, Columbia Artists Mgmt Inc., 165 West 57th St. New York, NY 10019.

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 Collegenow 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, despairit 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.

Discovered Opera

Gravess 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 girls 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 Beethovens 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.

Throat Ailment Suspended Career Plan

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 couldnt 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 Carmens 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 worksinging 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.

The Worlds Reigning Carmen

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 Foundations 1990 Gala Concert, which was broadcast nationally in 1991 on PBSs 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 worlds 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 Yorks 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 mustnt 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 cantoI swear to God, they make your voice better. Theyre difficult, especially for a voice like mine. My voice is broad. Its fat. I need to work to line it up, to make it skinny. With Carmen you have to watch out. Its 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 Stravinskys The Rakes Progress, Charlotte in Massenets Werther, and Dalila in Saint-Saenss 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 Im 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, Gravess struggle continues. The key in this business is not only about getting your foot in the door, she told Essence, its 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 bookingswhich stretch into the next centuryare any indication, Denyce Graves will be staying in the room for many years to come.

Selected discography

Angels Watching Over Me, NPR Classics, 1998.

Denyce Graves: A Cathedral Christmas, PBS Productions, 1998.

Recital Denyce Graves: Heroines de lOpera romantique Français, FNAC Music, 1993.

Hamlet, EMI, 1993.

Concert For Planet Earth, Sony Classical, 1993.

Otello, Deutsche Grammophon, 1993.

Sources

Periodicals

American Record Guide, September/October 1994.

Atlanta Journal-Constitution, November 16, 1997, November 17, 1997.

Christian Science Monitor, July 24, 1996.

Ebony, February 1996.

Essence, September 1996.

Glamour, December 1997.

Los Angeles Times, January 21, 1996.

New York, September 11, 1995.

New York Times, December 28, 1997, October 14, 1995, October 9, 1995.

Parade, May 29, 1994.

People Weekly, October 23, 1995.

Readers Digest, February 1997.

Theatre Bio, Suzanne Stephens Arts Services, June 1998.

Wall Street Journal, April 4, 1995.

Washingtonian, December 1996.

Washington Post, January 19, 1997, June 8, 1996, October 9, 1995, March 26, 1995, February 24, 1991, September 28, 1989.

Ellen Dennis French

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
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"Graves, Denyce 1964–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 21 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Graves, Denyce 1964–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 21, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/graves-denyce-1964

"Graves, Denyce 1964–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved October 21, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/graves-denyce-1964

Graves, Denyce

Denyce Graves

Opera singer

For the Record

Selected discography

Sources

Unlikely diva Denyce Graves has brought new life to international opera circles. Her rich mezzo soprano vocal style, characterized by the American Record Guide as a full and voluptuous instrument, has made her famous in Europe and the United States, carrying her far beyond her tough, inner-city beginnings. Graves grew up in turbulent southwest Washington, D.C., a neighborhood littered with nondescript tenement buildings and plagued by drugs and violence, a long way from the celebrated opera houses of Europe and the United States. In her signature role as Carmen in Bizets classic opera of the same name, Graves has performed in Pariss Bastille Opera, Viennas State Opera, and New Yorks Metropolitan Opera. Graves travels nine months of the year performing around the globe and has portrayed Carmen, the Spanish cigarette girl, in over 30 productions. With her Met debut, Graves distinguished herself as one of operas rising stars and, in addition to her prodigious talent and dramatic flair, she is known as one of the friendliest of mezzo sopranos in international music. Her Met performance in January of 1996, documented by the CBS television news program, 60 Minutes, returned generally positive critical reviews, though the 100 Graves family members in attendance would argue that there has never been a more dazzling Carmen.

But while her life today may be the stuff of dreams, her youth was anything but. In a story recounted in the Washington Post, a teenaged Graves came face to face with the kind of tragedy that all too often destroys the aspirations of urban children. She was on her way to a Washington, D.C., vocal competition when, as her bus rolled to a stop, a gunshot rang out and its victim fell against the door. In the panic, the driver and passengers fled the gruesome scene. I remember leaping over that body out into the night and the rain, and just running and running and running in the dark, she told the Washington Post. I didnt know where I was, I didnt know where I was going. I just knew I had to get away from there. As far away as I could get. Under the firm wing of a loving mother, Graves and her two siblings managed to escape their Galveston Street neighborhood. While her mother, Dorothy, worked as a typist at Federal City College (now the University of the District of Columbia), Graves, her older brother, and younger sister were given chores and productive projects to complete to keep them from the streets. Popular music was forbidden in the house and television viewing had to meet the strict standards of their mother. She didnt want her babies to be lost to the streets, like so many, Graves told the New York Times.

The Graveses were active members of a D.C. baptist church, attending services two or three times a week, and integral members of the choir. Thursday nights in

For the Record

Born c. 1965 in Washington, D.C. to Dorothy (a registrar at University of the District of Columbia) and Charles (a Baptist minister) Graves (Dorothy remarried to Oliver Kenner, a maintenance worker, after Charles left family, c. 1967); married David Perry (a classical guitar importer, born c. 1950) c. 1990.

Began vocal training singing in church choirs; formal training began at the Duke Ellington School for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C; studied at Oberlin Conservatory at Oberlin College in Ohio; studied at the New England Conservatory, Boston; after nearly a year away from music due to vocal problems, took an apprenticeship with the Houston Grand Opera, 1988-90; performed Verdis Otello opposite tenor Placido Domingo; performed lead role in Bizets Carmen with the Minnesota Opera, 1991; launched successful European audition tour, 1992; has since played the role of Carmen in over 40 productions, notably at Londons Covent Garden, Pariss Bastille Opera, and the Vienna Opera.

Selected awards: Received Grand Prize in 1990s Concours International de Chant de Paris given by Union Femmes Artistes et Musiciennes (Paris International Voice Competition, Union of Female Artists and Musicians).

Addresses: Home Resides in Leesburg, Virginia.

the Graves household was music night and the children formed a gospel group their mother dubbed The Inspirational Children of God. The children traveled to churches around Washington to perform and Denyce gradually developed into the groups soloist. I was very shy, she told the Houston Chronicle, and my mother didnt want me to be shy. So she would give me solos to sing. She would push me in front and say,You have to get over this, Denyce. Graves became known to the other kids in the neighborhood as Hollywood because she did not pursue the same activities as they didshe spent her time buried in books of poetry or doing homework. Through all her days at Patterson Elementary and then at Friendship Junior High, Graves was an outsider. I was one of the weird kids, one of those who was not in, she remarked to Ebony.

At the suggestion of junior high teacher Judith Grove, Graves auditioned for admission to Washingtons Duke Ellington School for the Performing Arts. Though she initially planned to study theater, faculty members encouraged her to pursue music. Graves studied under voice teacher Helen Hodam and progressed quickly. It was at the Ellington School that Graves realized that opera was her true calling. A class trip to the Kennedy Center in 1980 to view a rehearsal of Beethovens Fideliotriggered Gravess operatic ambitions and after a teacher loaned her a copy of Marilyn Home singing arias from Cavalleria Rusticana, Graves pinned her hopes on such a career. I thought it was beautiful. I listened to it over and over and over again, and the more I heard it, the more I said,Yea, this is me. This is what I want to do, she remarked to the Washington Post.

Graves worked hard at singing in French, German, and Italian and caught a break when, at a recital, a member of the Washington Opera chorus heard her sing and remarked to Graves that her singing was wonderful. I had always known how my singing made me feel, but it had never occurred to me that it might provoke the same sort of emotions in others, she told the Washington Post. When teacher Helen Hodam left the Ellington School and moved on to Oberlin College in Ohio, Graves followed. Despite offers for full scholarships elsewhere, Graves chose to study with her high school mentor. At Oberlin Conservatory Graves worked several jobs to pay the private schools tuition, cleaning dormitories and working in the cafeteria to get herself through. She performed her first full-length opera at Oberlin, singing in Eros and Psyche, a work commissioned in celebration of the colleges sesquicentennial. When Hodam left Oberlin for the New England Conservatory, Graves again followed, still working diligently at both her craft and odd jobs to support herself. Eventually Graves progressed through the ranks and became known as one of the conservatorys top prospects.

Poised for success, Graves auditioned at the conservatory for the Metropolitan Operas Young Artist Program. She passed the opening rounds and was set to perform at the final round in New York. I had to win. I was four months behind in my rent. I couldnt pay for the rented dress I was wearing, she confessed to the New York Times. The stress from working long hours as a hotel desk clerk in Boston and her rigorous vocal training caught up with her, however, and her performance in New York was less than representative of her talents. Crushed by her lackluster performance and experiencing severe vocal problems, Graves visited doctor after doctor to find successful treatment. When none presented itself, she gave up singing entirely and resigned herself to a job as a secretary in a Boston hospital. When a doctor whom she had previously visited reported that her condition was nothing more than a treatable thyroid problem, Graves hesitantly decided to give singing another try. The Houston Grand Opera called her three times before she would accept an apprenticeship in 1988.

In Houston, Graves had the opportunity to work with the legendary Placido Domingo in a production of Otelloby Verdi. Domingo, engaged by her abilities, became a strong supporter and helped launch her career in earnest. He told the New York Times, What impressed me immediately about her, aside from her obvious vocal and physical beauty, was an aura of the dramatic about her. After completing the apprenticeship in 1990, she offered her distinct take on the role of Carmen with the Minnesota Opera in a modern production of the classic, set in 1950s America rather than 19th-century Spain. Choosing not to listen to previous versions of the opera, Graves opened herself to a new interpretation of the beloved character. I loved the new concept, she remarked to the Washington Times, staging the opera as a kind of 1950s drama with hoods and street toughs.

Though she established herself professionally in the role of Carmen, Graves looks to complement her repertoire with other roles. She told the Houston Chronicle, Its a popular opera. This is a problem for my career. I want people to come to the theater because Im singing, not because its Carmen. Though Graves is booked by opera companies around the world through 1998, many of her roles will be as Carmen due to her unique vocal character and dramatic presence. Former Washington Opera director Martin Feinstein commented to People, Shes the definitive Carmen. She has a beautiful voice with great range. Shes beautiful and sexy. Not only that, shes very nice.

Selected discography

Hamlet (singing the role of Gertrude), EMI, 1994.

Heroines of Romantic French Opera, FN AC Music (France), 1995.

Otello (singing the role of Emilia), DG Records, 1995.

Sources

Ebony, February 1996.

Evening Standard (London), January 19, 1996.

Houston Chronicle, October 23, 1994; October 29, 1994.

Houston Post, November 7, 1994.

Los Angeles Times, January 26, 1996.

New York Times, October 14, 1995.

Opera News, December 25, 1993; March 5, 1994; February 18, 1995; January 6, 1996.

People, October 23, 1995.

Washington Post, February 10, 1994; March 26, 1995; October 9, 1995.

Washington Times, March 24, 1995.

Rich Bowen

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