Assessed by Jonathan Tolins of Opera News as "the most famous female French opera singer in the world today," Natalie Dessay has earned a reputation for charisma, dramatic conviction, and vocal versatility. A pert, diminutive woman not fitting the physical stereotype of operatic sopranos, Dessay began her career as a specialist in so-called soubrette roles, playing the parts of coquettish young women. As her career developed and she surmounted a major vocal disorder, she began to take on the central, often tragic soprano roles of Italian opera, with their accordingly more strenuous vocal demands. Whatever she sang, Dessay paid equal attention to singing and to her first love, acting. Explaining her admiration for the fiery Greek soprano Maria Callas, whose voice little resembled her own, Dessay told Neil Fisher of the Times of London that "she was one of the first to think like that—that opera is everything together, not only the voice or not only the music, or not only the acting, but a package. The whole package."
Natalie Dessay was born Nathalie Dessaix on April 19, 1965, in Lyon, France. The "Nathalie" spelling is more common in France, but Dessay chose to drop the "h" as a quiet tribute to American movie star Natalie Wood, and even during her professional life she would nurture
a passion for the stars of classic Hollywood cinema. Raised in Bordeaux in southwestern France, Dessay was the daughter of an engineer father and a homemaker mother, neither of whom had any special interest in music. From the beginning, she had the desire to become a performer, but singing did not often cross her mind. She dreamed of becoming a ballet dancer, contemplated a career as a circus performer and, after enrolling as a student of German at a local university, switched to acting classes without her parents' permission. When they found out, she told Joshua Kosman of the San Francisco Chronicle, "they were not happy, but there was nothing they could do."
During rehearsals for a play by Molière, Dessay decided to take a few voice lessons because her part called for her to sing a short passage. The voice teacher "told me, ‘You have to sing—you have such an easy voice!’," Dessay recalled to Brian Kellow of Opera News. "I had the high notes. And I didn't even know. I did know that I was able to sing in tune." She switched to the Bordeaux Conservatory, a local music school. Whereas many voice students linger in school, taking lessons for several years with favorite teachers, Dessay buzzed through in a single year. "I knew that the things I had to learn were not possible to learn in school. I didn't feel well in institutions; that was not for me.…I wanted to experiment, to learn what it is to play and sing at the same time," she told Kosman. She never learned to read music fluently.
Moving on to Paris for further training, Dessay won several prestigious voice competitions, including the 1990 Mozart Competition in Vienna, Austria. She specialized in the light, melodic roles of Mozart and other composers during her early years as a performer, but some of them, such as that of the Queen of the Night in Mozart's The Magic Flute, were among the most difficult in the entire operatic repertory, ascending to almost unsingable heights. Her voice was agile, sweet, in her words (as quoted by Tolins) a "bird voice," unusually clear at the top of the soprano range.
But it was more than vocal acrobatics that propelled Dessay to the top of the operatic world. From the start she was a singer who paid attention to the dramatic side of opera and showed a knack for working with stage directors on innovative productions. The first of her many appearances in Jacques Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann was in a 1992 production at the Bastille Opera in Paris, directed by Polish filmmaker Roman Polanski. "Dessay welcomes directors with strong ideas that can be fully worked out in intensive give-and-take," David J. Baker commented in Opera News.
Specializing in French and German rather than Italian roles, Dessay rose to operatic stardom. She was signed to the EMI Classics label in 1994, recording under its Virgin Classics imprint for much of her career. That year she made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera (the "Met") in New York, in the role of Fiakermilli in Richard Strauss's Arabella, and first took on one of her favorite roles, that of Lakmé in Léo Delibes's opera of the same name, at the Opéra-Comique in Paris in 1995. Her debut at the Lyric Opera of Chicago came in 1999, as Morgana in George Frideric Handel's Alcina, and the rapid runs of Baroque-era (early eighteenth-century) opera fit her voice perfectly, both in stage performances and in vocal recitals.
In 2001 Dessay was flying high. She was scheduled to appear at the Metropolitan Opera as Zerbinetta in Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos, another one of her trademark roles, and her performances were to be taped for a DVD release. But, after consulting doctors because of persistent vocal problems, they ordered her to rest completely for three months. Finally Dessay underwent surgery to remove nodes from her vocal cords—a procedure that had left some singers unable even to speak. Dessay herself was forced to remain off the stage during a two-year recovery process.
For the Record …
Born April 19, 1965, in Lyon, France; married Laurent Naouri (a singer); two children. Education: Graduated from Bordeaux Conservatory, Bordeaux, France.
Began performing in France, early 1990s; signed to EMI Classics label, made debut at Metropolitan Opera, New York, 1994; made debut at Lyric Opera of Chicago, 1999; underwent vocal cord surgery; 2001; returned to performing, 2003; released DVD The Miracle of the Voice, 2006; appeared as Violetta in La Traviata at Santa Fe Opera, 2008.
Awards: Mozart Competition, Vienna, Austria, winner, 1990; Laurence Olivier Award, 2008.
Addresses: Agent—Agence artistique Cédelle,78 Boulévard Malesherbes, 75008 Paris, France. Web site—Natalie Dessay Official Web site: http://www.nataliedessay.com.
Part of that process was a chance for Dessay to reassess her priorities, both personal and musical. Married to French baritone Laurent Naouri, Dessay balanced opera with a family life that included their two children. "Opera is only a job. I love it very much, and I need it to express myself, and to earn money, and to raise my kids. But my priority is my family. It was not so clear before. Now it's clear," she explained to Tolins. Her vocal problems, she said, represented "an opportunity to ask yourself questions. ‘What is my goal in life?’ ‘What are my priorities?’ ‘What is my interest in this job?’" When Dessay's voice emerged from its ordeal, it lacked its very highest notes but had a new, fuller sound that equipped her to tackle roles she had previously avoided: the doomed heroines of Italian and French opera.
Dessay's comeback was rapid and complete, inaugurated with the engagement as Zerbinetta that the Met had held in reserve for her. She appeared in the title role of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor in Chicago in 2004, following it up with that of Juliet in Charles Gounod's version of the Shakespearean tragedy Roméo et Juliette at the Met in 2005. Her 2006 DVD release The Miracle of a Voice received wide attention, and she continued to delve into Baroque repertory with an acclaimed program of Bach and Handel arias recorded with the French conductor Emanuelle Haïim and her ensemble Le Concert d'Astrée. In 2008 she added another key role in Italian opera, that of Violetta in La Traviata, to her repertoire in an appearance at the Santa Fe Opera in New Mexico, and she was even thinking of a return to her first love—stage acting. In 2008 she received England's Laurence Olivier Award, usually given to stage actors, for her performance in Donizetti's The Daughter of the Regiment at the Covent Garden opera house the previous year.
Mozart: Concert Arias, EMI, 1995.
French Opera Arias, EMI, 1996.
Mozart: Die Zauberflöte, Erato, 1996.
Offenbach: Les Contes d'Hoffmann, Erato, 1997.
Delibes: Lakmeé, EMI, 1998.
Offenbach: Orphée aux enfers, EMI, 1998.
Stravinsky: Le Rossignol & Rénard, Angel, 1999.
Mozart Heroines, EMI, 2000.
Strauss: Ariadne auf Naxos, Deutsche Grammophon, 2001.
The Opera Album, EMI, 2002.
Donizetti: Lucie de Lammermoor, Virgin, 2002.
Airs d'opéras français, Virgin, 2003.
Amor: Opera Scenes and Lieder by Richard Strauss, Virgin, 2004.
Delirio: Handel's Italian Cantatas, Virgin, 2005.
Gounod, Massenet: Arias, Virgin, 2005.
The Miracle of the Voice, Virgin, 2006.
Handel: Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno, Virgin, 2007.
Italian Opera Arias, Virgin, 2007.
Slonimsky, Nicolas, editor, Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, Centennial ed., Schirmer, 2001.
Daily Telegraph (London, England), May 5, 2003, p. 16.
Opera News, April 2001, p. 32; July 2001, p. 76; May 2004, p. 14; September 2007, p. 18.
San Francisco Chronicle, June 14, 2008, p. E1.
Times (London, England), January 19, 2008 p. 20.
"Natalie Dessay," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (June 26, 2008).
—James M. Manheim
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