May 6, 2011 5:52 pm

Lunch with the FT: Danielle de Niese

Illustration of Danielle de Niese

Prima donnas don’t do lunch. Most go to bed at four in the morning and get up at two in the afternoon. In that context, lunch with the FT must be a rude awakening. I can’t expect Danielle de Niese to be punctual or chatty.

Least of all when she is “at home”. The 32-year-old Australian-American soprano not only stars at Glyndebourne, the privately-run opera house in southern England, where we are meeting. She lives here too. In December 2009, de Niese married Gus Christie, third-generation owner and executive chairman of Glyndebourne Festival Opera. They live in the 17th-century country house adjoining the auditorium, where this summer she will sing the role of the beautiful, unattainable Adina in a revival of a 2007 production of Donizetti’s light-hearted L’elisir d’amore, of which all 16 performances have already sold out.

Nestling in the Sussex Downs, Glyndebourne is a rural idyll. For much of the year the predominant sound is of sheep in the surrounding fields. But for four summer months it is an internationally-renowned opera house, overrun by black-tie audiences, many of them bankers and City types who think nothing of spending £250 on an opera ticket – and almost as much again for an upmarket picnic. Today, in the quiet pre-season period, de Niese could be forgiven for keeping her door shut.

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And yet, true to her friendly reputation, she has agreed to have lunch with me in one of the in-house restaurants, today being used as the canteen for staff and performers. De Niese makes an unlikely lady of the manor. The daughter of Sri Lankans who emigrated to Australia, she spent her early years in Melbourne and, aged nine, was the youngest-ever winner of Young Talent Time, a television show. Shortly after, she moved with her family (she has a younger brother) to Los Angeles where she became a guest host on a live show for teenagers called LA Kids.

Given this precocity, it comes as no surprise to discover de Niese was only 15 when she made her professional opera debut with the Los Angeles Opera. She later went to the Mannes College of Music in New York.

Her first British performances were at Glyndebourne in 2005, when she was 26. A late replacement for another singer who was sick, the impact de Niese made as Cleopatra in Handel’s Giulio Cesare was stunning. “A brilliant mover, she seduces everyone in the audience,” I wrote in my first-night review. In 2008 she took on another seductress role at Glyndebourne, Poppea in Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea. That was another triumph.

What happened on stage was nothing to what was going on in private. The person de Niese wowed more than anyone was Eton-educated Christie, 47, who was recently divorced from the writer Imogen Lycett Green (with whom he has four sons). To those familiar with Glyndebourne history, de Niese and Christie’s marriage looked like the re-birth of a dynasty. John Christie, Gus’s grandfather, who founded Glyndebourne Festival Opera in 1934, also married a beautiful soprano, Audrey Mildmay.

Mildmay, however, did not have an international career. De Niese, with all the self-assurance of an American who believes she is “living the dream”, enjoys a career that has taken her to the great opera houses of the world: she sings at Paris Opera and New York’s Metropolitan Opera and has a recording contract with Decca. She has considerable stage charisma to which her looks and presentational skills undoubtedly contribute.

“I’m sorry I’m late,” she says in a Los Angeles accent as she emerges from the back door of the main house, next to the Nether Wallop restaurant, a mere 15 minutes past the appointed time. Dressed in a smart leather jacket, frilly black shirt, black jeans and suede cowboy boots, topped off with Prada sunglasses, de Niese looks sporty but sophisticated. She could be an athlete or a model. The fat lady she most definitely ain’t.

Nor does she have the airs and graces of a “diva of the Downs”, as one newspaper dubbed her after her marriage. The restaurant is a large simply decorated room with vaulted ceiling and self-service counter, and I can hardly get a word in edgeways. De Niese, known by just about everyone as Danni, is giggly and girly. Touchy-feely too: no sooner have we settled at a corner table than her hand is on my arm as she tells me about her allergies – which, she points out, do not affect her relationship with Caesar, the “super-intelligent” Portuguese water dog she and Christie recently bought. “I can nuzzle till kingdom come. I’m a huge dog person, I love to hug and kiss them.”

Apart from a couple of staff, the restaurant is deserted – the morning opera rehearsal is still under way – so we each help ourselves to a plate of baked hake, roasted carrots, red onion and sweet potato, with a side order of beetroot. I get a jug of water, she brings the bread.

What does de Niese make of Glyndebourne’s dyed-in-the-wool English traditions of behaviour and dress? “When I first came to England [six years ago], it was like coming back to something I knew,” she says, as we plunge into our food. “I spent my first 10 years in the Commonwealth. I come from cricket, crumpets, cucumber sandwiches, the Queen.”

The alliterative picture she conjures makes me laugh and I ask if that’s what defines English culture for her. Not at all, says de Niese. “That would be like saying French means eating escargots, Italian is pasta, American is cheeseburgers. It goes deeper. What I see as specially English is the charm – everyone is so polite. Being restrained is part of the charm. And I love the sense of humour – it takes me back to Australia. The English are great at making fun of themselves. They’re so self-effacing.”

Unlike most Americans? I venture the question because I feel a need to temper de Niese’s effusively upbeat conversation. Undeterred, she moves on to another aspect of English charm – the linguistic niceties. “Why do the English use the word pants for underwear? I was in the gym, where I do boxing, so I had to take my wedding ring off. It wasn’t till afterwards that I realised I’d forgotten to put it back on. I told Gus I’d left my ring in this guy’s pants. They weren’t his actual pants – I mean, there’s a difference between pants and panties. The word ‘pants’ comes from ‘pantaloon’, doesn’t it?”

While de Niese is earnestly recalling the incident, I can’t help wondering what a blast of fresh air this classless woman, a product of talent not privilege, must have injected into the social milieu of the Christie clan. If Gus Christie had consciously set out to update Glyndebourne’s image, he could not have done better.

I ask de Niese if she notices British class-consciousness. At Glyndebourne, where people dress up for the opera, you can hardly escape it. “The English use the word ‘posh’ a lot,” she says, waving at a group of singers in the lunch queue as if she had sighted long-lost friends in an airport lounge. “This person is posh, that person isn’t. We [Americans] don’t use it at all, except for Posh Spice. I know there are lots of regional accents in England but I can’t tell them apart and I’m not really aware of class. I don’t pay any attention to those boundaries. I’m a California girl.”

De Niese says that wherever she goes, she volunteers to talk to schoolchildren about singing. “They need the personal contact – they want to feel that someone who has made it faced the same obstacles as they are facing.”

But she agrees that not everyone is able or confident enough to perform in public aged eight, as she did. “[My life-story] makes me feel like I’m an Olympic athlete. When I made my Los Angeles Opera debut at 15, there was no one else there near my age. Now there are lots. I tell kids you’re never too young to start and never too inexperienced to be moved by classical music. OK, you can’t just pick it up tomorrow and be a star – it needs dedication and self-belief. But to appreciate it, you just need an open mind and heart.”

Although de Niese has been doing most of the talking, she has finished eating far ahead of me. To help me catch up, I ask her about the dazzling earrings, bracelet and long gold necklace she is wearing, all with matching white-and-grey mother-of-pearl. She has, she explains, a “relationship” with French luxury jeweller Van Cleef & Arpels, meaning she wears their most expensive products on public occasions. So what is the value of today’s assemblage? For the only time in our conversation, de Niese falters. A mere £19,000, she says, “but these are for keeps”. This distinguishes them from the jewels she wears for photo shoots and big social events.

“When I’m wearing millions of dollars to the theatre [on loan], they like to have bodyguards in my dressing room. In places where there is already high security, like when Gus and I were invited to Buckingham Palace, the guards don’t need to be there. But they do have their uses. When I arrived at St James’s Palace to see Prince Charles and Camilla, I put the heel of my shoe through my Donna Karan dress. It was so funny to see the guards trying to thread needles.” (The fashion designer is another purveyor of luxury with whom de Niese has a “relationship”.)

Such promotional tie-ups are associated more with sports personalities and pop stars than classical artists. Knowing that de Niese sang a medley of Whitney Houston pop songs in the finals of the Australian talent show, I suggest that she might develop into an operatic version of the diva-esque Houston (without the troubled life). De Niese seems flattered by the comparison. But, I ask, glancing towards the tempting pudding counter, surely the need to maintain a public aura of beauty requires punishing discipline in private. De Niese agrees – “I’m on a strict diet” – before confessing to being “strict when I want to be”.

So we each help ourselves to a plate of profiteroles, in my case with a dollop of chocolate sauce. Back at the table, I’m interested to know how de Niese handles aspersions that her looks have played a decisive role in her path to fortune.

“I have foreign critics asking me, ‘Don’t you want to be known for more than your looks?’ I tell them, ‘Have you seen my reviews?’ I look at physicality not as a sex object but a canvas on which I can paint the emotions of a character. When people talk only about your looks, it tells me more about them than about me. I’ve been in this business since I was 15. You wouldn’t survive if you couldn’t sing.”

De Niese has formidable acting and dancing skills and I wonder whether she has been tempted to star in a musical. “Why, thank you,” she says. “Maybe I will. It’s wonderful to have those talents. My tap dance teacher wanted me to give up singing but the thing I have always felt most special is classical music. If I went into pop or jazz or variety, it wouldn’t have the same meaning. I’d always be looking over my shoulder at the classical world. That’s how I feel when I’m a month off the stage.”

The restaurant has emptied, with everyone going back to rehearsal. It is a routine de Niese will submit to when she starts preparing for her 16 Donizetti performances this summer, in which she will play an attractive young minx who learns the meaning of true love.

At the check-out, I find that lunch has cost about a tenth of what the same restaurant will charge, for much the same food, when Glyndebourne’s black-tie patrons are here this summer. Of course, Glyndebourne is not just about money, just as de Niese is not just about looks. So I ask her to tell me the secret of the place she calls home: why should it be worth the time and expense of dressing up and hauling oneself into the countryside to hear operas you can hear in the city?

“Glyndebourne is about getting back to nature,” she smiles, as we survey the empty picnic lawns in the afternoon light. “The nature here inspires you to nurture your artistic qualities – there’s a harmony between the two that you don’t get in the city. Love, nature, art – put them together and you get Glyndebourne.”

On that triumphant note, de Niese waltzes off to collect Caesar for a walk.

Glyndebourne Festival 2011 opens with a new production of Wagner’s ‘Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg’ on May 21. ‘L’elisir d’amore’ opens on June 9

www.glyndebourne.com

Andrew Clark is the FT’s chief music critic

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Nether Wallop

Glyndebourne,Lewes, East Sussex

Baked hake and salsa verde x 2

Profiteroles x 2

Jug of water

Total £9.50 (staff prices)

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Laura Battle on a soprano with a sprinkle of stardust

Danielle de Niese is that rare thing: a soprano feted by pop pundits and classical critics alike, writes Laura Battle. Equally at home on television and the opera stage, she has managed to win over the widest range of audiences, all the while avoiding being called a “crossover artist” – a dread term.

De Niese has had some lucky breaks along the way but there can be no doubting her talent or her instinct for self-promotion. Other singers might flinch from diva associations but de Niese has made them a virtue: last year she was the subject of a BBC4 fly-on-the-wall documentary, Diva Diaries, and Diva is the title of her latest compilation album, released last year.

Accordingly, her website, www.danielledeniese.com, (complete with a stardust effect when visitors move the cursor) plays up to the role with glamorous portrait shots. And she often broadcasts chirpy updates (sprinkled with smileys) as well as bons mots, from the likes of Alanis Morissette and Mahatma Gandhi, to her 1,500 Twitter followers.

It was her performance as Cleopatra in Giulio Cesare at Glyndebourne in 2005 that put de Niese in the spotlight but she had already made her mark with opera companies in Europe and the US. At the age of 19 she debuted at the New York Met as Barbarina in The Marriage of Figaro and has since proved herself an able Mozartian. She has also confirmed her flair for a range of early repertoire, singing the title role in Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea, Hébé in Rameau’s Les Indes Galantes and Galatea in Handel’s Acis and Galatea.

Colleagues praise her diligence and professionalism and she has earned the respect of many eminent musicians: her first recital disc, Handel Arias (2008), was recorded with baroque conductor and musicologist William Christie (no relation to the Christie family who own Glyndebourne), and her second, The Mozart Album (2009), was conducted by the late Charles Mackerras with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.

“She is a fine baroque specialist who has understood that it is up to the interpreters of Handel or Monteverdi or Rameau to ‘complete’ what they have written,” says Christie. “In other words she uses the freedom of interpretation with intelligence. She’s my choice for a lot of 17th- and 18th-century repertory and, God, she looks great doing it!”

That’s not to say the de Niese soprano is to everyone’s taste – many find her timbre a little shrill and she has a tendency to slide into notes, Beyoncé-style. Certainly its voluptuousness contrasts with the rather chaste tradition of English sopranos, exemplified by the young stars Kate Royal and Lucy Crowe. Nevertheless, there is a consensus that de Niese is currently one of the most exciting performers to be seen on stage.

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