Disruptive Women: Denyce Graves on Carmen and Mary Cardwell Dawson

Photo Credit: Devon Cass

This piece first appeared in The Glimmerglass Festival’s donor magazine, Fanfare, in Spring 2022. It was published on the Festival’s website earlier this summer in preparation for their 2022 season.

Last summer, Denyce Graves made her Glimmerglass Festival debut in the world premiere of The Passion of Mary Cardwell Dawson by Sandra Seaton and Carlos Simon. This season, the superstar mezzo-soprano returns as Artist in Residence. In addition to reprising her role in The Passion of Mary Cardwell Dawson, she will make her directorial debut, leading a new co-production of Carmen.

There are few people in this world who know Carmen as intimately as Graves. She made her Metropolitan Opera debut in the title role in 1995 and returned to the Met for two subsequent seasons in different productions of Carmen, a role she has sung at the great opera houses of the world, including Vienna Staatsoper, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, San Francisco Opera, Opéra National de Paris, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Washington National Opera, Bayerische Staatsoper, Arena di Verona, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Opernhaus Zürich, Teatro Real in Madrid, Houston Grand Opera, The Dallas Opera, Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, Los Angeles Opera, and the Festival Maggio Musicale in Florence.

Graves’ extensive repertory also embraces German lieder, French mélodie, English art song, American musical theater, spirituals, and more. She has traveled the world as an official Cultural Ambassador for the United States, spreading goodwill through music, lecture, and seminars. Her spirit of community and engagement continues today through The Denyce Graves Foundation, which uplifts the voices of Black classical musicians both past and present. Graves recently spoke with Assistant Dramaturg Nick Richardson about her many upcoming projects here at the Festival and beyond.


NICK RICHARDSON: HOW HAVE YOUR THOUGHTS TOWARD CARMEN CHANGED OVER THE COURSE OF YOUR CAREER?

Denyce Graves: I think the opera is less about Carmen and more about Don José. I think it’s about these parallel universes where he spirals down from the second we see him and she rises up in social stature. The opera could be easily called Don José because – at least the lens that I’m seeing it through – it’s about what happens to him. She remains much more consistent in who she is. She announces that credo in the very beginning, in the habanera, and she stays true to who she is. He’s the one that keeps changing, and he falls from one act to the next.

NR: AND THAT’S WHAT MAKES AN EXCITING PROTAGONIST, REALLY, IS TO SEE HOW THEY CHANGE OVER THE COURSE OF THE PIECE.

DG: Oh, yeah. And his change is dramatic.

NG: HOW DOES THAT APPROACH COMPARE WITH OTHER PRODUCTIONS YOU’VE EXPERIENCED?

DG: For me, it’s completely different. Or maybe it’s because I’ve been so myopic and just concentrated on my own role that I see it very differently now. [She laughs.] But, you know, Carmen has a great amount of work to do. She has the most work to do of anybody on the stage all night. There’s lots I can say about Carmen. When I write my memoir one of these days, I’ll say it was Carmen who really taught me how to be a woman. I became a woman through having the experience of walking with her.

I have two gigantic regrets, actually. Two gigantic, real sort of heartbreaks about my career: I never recorded Carmen, and I never recorded Dalila. And I did those roles more than anybody! Opportunities would come up and then they would fall through. So having the opportunity to direct Carmen now feels like it closes that gap for me.

NR: HOW IS CARMEN RELEVANT TO OUR WORLD TODAY? WHY DO WE NEED THIS OPERA RIGHT NOW?

DG: The reason Carmen is a heroine is because she is proud to be exactly as she is. She’s not judging herself. She’s not censoring herself. She doesn’t care what you think about her. That’s not her business; it’s yours, right? I love the fact that she lives in the moment with complete abandon. That’s what we all want! We all want to be present and not second-guess everything, not judge ourselves, not censor our every movement and everything that we say. She is the epitome of freedom. She embodies la liberté.

NR: I WAS JUST SAYING TO MYSELF, “I WISH I COULD LIVE MORE LIKE CARMEN.”

DG: Exactly! She’s a great example.

NR: WHAT ABOUT DON JOSÉ? WHAT COULD HE TEACH US TODAY?

DG: What he could teach us today is really about staying the course. He gets into trouble because he keeps trying to make himself into something that he isn’t. Carmen is true to who she is; I would say he isn’t. I think he’s lost. I think he’s trying to find his way, and she’s much more secure. He could learn from her.

NR: TALKING ABOUT CARMEN AND WHO SHE IS MAKES ME THINK ABOUT MARY CARDWELL DAWSON. IN THE PLAY, WE SEE SOME OF DAWSON’S ANXIETIES AND FEARS, ESPECIALLY IN THOSE MONOLOGUES. “AM I DOING THE RIGHT THING?” “SHOULD I GO TO THE HALL?” SHE ASKS ALL THESE QUESTIONS, BUT SHE ALWAYS ENDS WITH, “NO, THIS IS WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE, AND I HAVE TO BE THE PERSON TO DO IT.” WHAT IS IT LIKE TO HAVE THIS SORT OF CHARACTER AS AN ONGOING PART OF YOUR CAREER?

DG: I’m so far from these women! My innate personality is so, so far from these women, but they have shaped me, especially Carmen. Mary Cardwell Dawson, if you think about the 1940s, her audacity to just think, “Ok, so, no one’s hiring me? Then let me create my own company.” And you know that no one was trying to help her. No one wanted her to succeed. What an incredible woman. Most people would never have had the gumption to even try to attempt what she accomplished. But she was born with everything that she needed to run that race. That was already in her. And thank God for her. You and I may not even be speaking now were it not for her. But I do see where you draw the parallels between the two, for sure. Both are incredibly strong women. Queens of their environment. Absolutely focused, grounded, trusting themselves, not looking for any answers outside of themselves, not looking for anybody’s approval. There are many similarities.

NR: NOT “BEHAVING,” PER SE, OR NOT FOLLOWING WHATEVER CODES…

DG: Disruptors.

NR: “DISRUPTORS.” I LIKE THAT WORD. THAT REALLY RESONATES WITH ME AND WHERE THE WORLD IS RIGHT NOW.

DG: Oh, and how! I agree with that. That’s what they both are.

NR: THE DENYCE GRAVES FOUNDATION IS VERY CLOSELY TIED WITH MARY CARDWELL DAWSON’S LEGACY TODAY. WHAT WORK WILL YOUR FOUNDATION DO THIS YEAR? WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING FORWARD TO?

DG: Oh my gosh! We’ve got a lot in store! This spring we’ll pilot an initiative with six HBCUs [Historically Black Colleges and Universities] in a consortium with top-tier conservatories. We’ll do an exchange program where we send, for example, a pianist and a coach from Juilliard down to Fisk University to work for one week with the singers, and then have those singers come back to Juilliard for voice lessons and opera coachings. We’ve got another program called Hidden Voices, where we assign up-and-coming artists the name of a forgotten Black musician, and they have to do research on that person and create works of art about them.

We’re modeling a lot of what Mary Cardwell Dawson herself did. She’s the inspiration for everything that’s happening with our Foundation. The purpose is to elevate the lives and the work of singers at all stages of their careers, while honoring the history and the contributions of those who have gone before us.

To learn more about The Denyce Graves Foundation, visit thedenycegravesfoundation.org.

From Stage to Screen to Stage Again

What’s lost, what’s gained in a stage-to-film adaptation

Photo Credit: Niki Boon

This piece first appeared in The Glimmerglass Festival’s donor magazine, Fanfare, in Fall 2019. It was published on the Festival’s website earlier this year for their production of The Sound of Music (postponed from 2020 due to COVID-19).

The 1965 film adaptation starring Julie Andrews certainly popularized the musical, but the film varies slightly from the original stage version. What does Maria sing during the thunderstorm if not “My Favorite Things?” She sings “The Lonely Goatherd” with the children, assuaging their fears and encouraging their increasing sense of play so long suppressed by the Captain. “The Lonely Goatherd” in the film does not further the plot much (if at all). It’s posed as entertainment for the Captain, the Baroness and Max, but it’s largely a showcase piece for Bil Baird’s puppetry. In this light, the stage musical actually proves to use the songs more effectively when it comes to furthering the plot.

The stage version also more prominently presents the growing fascism outside of Austria. In Act II, the Captain, the Baroness and Max discuss the best course of action should Nazis from Germany invade. The Baroness and Max believe they should acquiesce in order to protect themselves, saying there’s “No Way to Stop It.” The Captain, on the other hand, vows to defy the Nazis should they invade. This political split is important because it illustrates the Captain’s incompatibility with the Baroness, which makes Maria a more viable partner. The musical hints at this mismatch earlier in Act I in “How Can Love Survive?,” in which the Baroness and Max claim that two rich people can’t maintain a romance because neither of them have anything to lose. Neither song was included in the film version.

Also missing from the film is “An Ordinary Couple,” Maria and the Captain’s original love duet. Rodgers wrote a new duet to replace it: “Something Good.” He also wrote “I Have Confidence,” Maria’s self-assured declaration as she travels from the abbey to the von Trapp family home. Notably, these two songs are the only ones with music and lyrics by Rodgers alone; Hammerstein had already passed away before work on the film began. Both “Something Good” and “I Have Confidence” will appear in the Festival’s production of The Sound of Music this summer.

Goodbye, Dolly! (Review and Photos)

I spent this past fall rehearsing and performing Cornelius Hackl in Jerry Herman’s classic musical, Hello, Dolly! The production got a wonderful review from Spotlight News, including this note:

“My favorite performances of the night were from Nick Richardson as Cornelius Hackl and Zack Kattwinkel as Barnaby Tucker… These two high energy lads stole every scene in which they appeared. Wonderful chemistry between these two young men and spot-on comedic timing made for a truly terrific night at the theatre. Their portrayal of these two sweet and somewhat naive youths is loaded with laughs and pulled heart strings. You root for these two to win their hearts desires and celebrate with them when they ultimately succeed. Very well done gentlemen, very well done indeed.”

Brian Cebrian, Spotlight News

You can read the full review on the Spotlight News website. Below are production photos taken by Joshua Stubbs (J. Stubbs Photography).

“My Favorite Things”: From Hammerstein’s Desk to Holiday Hit

This piece first appeared as a blog post on The Glimmerglass Festival’s website. Read it there.

The Sound of Music may very well be the most beloved musical in America thanks to the massive popularity of the 1965 film adaptation starring Julie Andrews. The film’s soundtrack spent 109 weeks in the top 10 of the Billboard 200 chart, making songs like “Do-Re-Mi,” “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” and “My Favorite Things” household tunes. Rodgers & Hammerstein’s final stage work produced songs that are magically both classic and malleable at the same time. The journey of “My Favorite Things” from showtune, to jazz standard, to Christmas song and then pop riff illustrates their music’s longevity and flexibility.

“My Favorite Things” first reached audiences as performed by Mary Martin in the original 1959 Broadway production. Archives at the Library of Congress suggest that Hammerstein once had a different song title in mind: “Good Things.” The deceptively simple song took Hammerstein a few days to write, and an early draft of the lyrics hints at the ultimate rhythm of the text, even though the words seem a little clunky:

Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens,
Curling my fingers in warm woolen mittens,
Riding downhill on my big brother’s bike –
These are a few of the things that I like.

Hammerstein eventually rewrote the lyrics to rhyme with his new title, “My Favorite Things,” but it was actually Rodgers’ melody that gave the song a life outside of the musical. Jazz musician John Coltrane recorded his own version as the title track of his 1960 album. His interpretation runs over 13 minutes long, but a shorter LP version sold 50,000 units in its first year – a significant achievement for a jazz album. Coltrane improvised over Rodgers’s melody on a soprano saxophone, and the LP’s success re-popularized that instrument in jazz music, where the tenor saxophone reigned supreme.

The following year, Julie Andrews performed “My Favorite Things” on a holiday episode of The Gary Moore Show, years before she was cast in the film and years before the song became associated with Christmastime. Pop crooner Jack Jones was the first artist to include “My Favorite Things” on a Christmas album in 1964, a few months ahead of the film’s 1965 release. Film executives feared the movie would flop without an advance radio hit, so they approached Jones’s record label for publicity. They pitched “My Favorite Things” for Jones’s album, suggesting, “Just add sleigh bells.”

The popularity of both Jones’s rendition and the film cemented “My Favorite Things” in the holiday canon. Major recording artists across genres and generations have recorded the song on their own Christmas albums, including The SupremesBarbra StreisandHerb Alpert & The Tijuana BrassCarole KingKelly Clarkson and Mary J. Blige. Other respected names have put a non-festive spin on the song, like Rod Stewart during his American Songbook phase and OutKast remixing John Coltrane’s jazz masterpiece. Independent artists have also released their own versions; consider the covers by viral pop duo Pomplamoose or “TrapHouseJazz” artist Masego.

Earlier this year, pop princess Ariana Grande received permission from the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization to borrow the melody of “My Favorite Things” for her smash single “7 rings.” The music video for “7 rings” has over 637 million views (at press time). Though the original stage musical opened 60 years ago, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s score to The Sound of Music remains an inspiration for musicians of all kinds and a favorite of listeners all year long.

The Sound of Gesamtkunstwerk: Wagner to Kern to R&H

My article appears in the Fall 2019 edition of The Glimmerglass Festival’s Fanfare magazine. It starts with Wagner’s idea of a “total work of art” and then traces his influence on American musical theatre. The article ties Glimmerglass’s past and future productions together: Wagner’s Die Feen (2020), Rodgers & Kern’s Showboat (2019), and Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music (2020).

I also wrote a sidebar chronicling the changes made in adapting The Sound of Music for film. It previews the stage/screen hybrid version to play at Glimmerglass in Summer 2020.

You can read the article here.

“Look at dat little gal shuffle!”: Magnolia Dances into Her Sex

Show Boat at The Glimmerglass Festival 2019. Photo: Karli Cadel.

This piece first appeared as a blog post on The Glimmerglass Festival’s website. Read it there.

Kern and Hammerstein’s Show Boat may truly be the first musical to unify script and song, with the musical numbers driving the narrative. Dance, however, does not find its equal footing in storytelling on Broadway until Agnes de Mille’s choreography for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!, the first integrated book musical. Though Sammy Lee’s original choreography for Show Boat did not withstand the test of time, dance still serves a purpose in furthering plot and character in the musical.

The first dance break in Show Boat comes during “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” a black folk song that mixed-race leading lady Julie sings to Magnolia, the daughter of Captain Andy. Magnolia confesses her first crush to Julie, but Julie warns Magnolia to tread cautiously out of fear that she will fall too quickly and too deeply in love. Magnolia has heard Julie sing this song many times before, but this is the first time she personally relates to the song. In this moment of sexual awakening, Magnolia embodies her new self-awareness and sexual desires by dancing the shuffle with the African-American dockworkers.

The shuffle originates from enslaved West Africans living in colonial North America. Lacking a common language, slaves used music and dance to communicate with each other and preserve their histories. Many plantation owners outlawed dancing. Since dancing was defined as lifting one’s foot off the ground, some slave communities circumvented this rule by shuffling their feet. Many traditional African-American dances feature the shuffle along with other movements.

Though the human body is not limited to specific movements based on race, the body and its movements are racialized. The shuffle and other dances became one identifier of what white Europeans considered “African primitivism.” As Colleen Dunagan and Roxane Fenton write, “Reaching back to the period of slavery, Euro-Americans both distanced themselves from and were fascinated with African American music and dance. The trope of the primitive identified particular characteristics that were in conflict with middle- and upper-class European social and religious norms, and associated them with Africans, African Americans, and their cultural forms.” Euro-Americans considered blacks to be libidinous and sexually promiscuous, therefore not as “evolved” or “refined” as whites. White people continuously used this idea of the African primitive to justify racism and oppress black people for years.

The shuffle held associations of hyper-sexuality ascribed to the black bodies that performed it. As Magnolia begins to mature into womanhood, she finds her footing in the shuffle, mapping that sexuality – and its corresponding blackness – onto her body. Unlike the black dockworkers also reveling in song and dance, Magnolia can cast off her assumed blackness and its oppressed state; once the dance ends, she resumes her whiteness and its privileges.

But for a brief moment, racial differences between Magnolia and the dockworkers are elided through dance. Such is the paradox of social dance: its ability to both build community and erase the boundaries that differentiate groups, as Camille A. Brown explains. In social dance, a strong potential exists for greater cultural empathy. Magnolia may use the shuffle to safely explore and embody her gender and sexuality, but the dance also brings her closer to Julie and the black workers. Magnolia later begs her father to keep Julie on the boat despite Julie’s mixed race posing a legal threat to his business. Though the musical may employ the African primitive trope, Magnolia’s act of advocacy must have been radical at Show Boat’s premiere in 1927 and still resonates in our racially-charged America today.

Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Song

Show Boat at The Glimmerglass Festival 2019. Photo: Karli Cadel.
Show Boat at The Glimmerglass Festival 2019. Photo: Karli Cadel.

This piece first appeared as a blog post for The Glimmerglass Festival’s website. Read it there.

“Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” is one of many songs from Show Boat that lives on in popular memory, second only to the masterpiece “Ol’ Man River.” As Todd Decker writes in his book Who Should Sing “Ol’ Man River”?, “Black or white, male or female – anyone who sings ‘Ol’ Man River’ must confront and consider its charged racial content and activist history.” Though “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” does not have the same activist legacy, it does have a similar specific racial content that must be negotiated in performance, whether that’s within or outside of the context of the musical.

In Show Boat, “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” plays a central role in the subplot surrounding Julie, the leading lady onboard. She reads as white, but her performance of “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” hints at her mixed-race background. After Julie sings the chorus, Queenie, the boat’s black cook, immediately becomes suspicious, commenting that she has only heard black people sing that song.

Not only does Queenie draw a musical color line, but the music and lyrics of the song itself also suggest blackness. Hammerstein wrote the lyrics in a stereotypical black dialect, replacing th’s with d’s (“dat” for “that”), dropping the endings off of words (“lovin’” rather than “loving”), and intentionally misspelling words to approximate speech patterns (“sumpin,’” not “something”). Kern’s music also reflects what was considered a “black” sound: “many blue notes and a verse built on the twelve-bar blues realized in the full-voice quarter-note chords typical of bluesy Broadway songs at the time,” as Decker explains in Show Boat: Performing Race in an American Musical.

It’s up to the singer to decide how to perform the song. Black American jazz singers Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday both opt for a more standard pronunciation than Hammerstein’s written dialect, but they retain a bluesy vocal tone; Charlotte Church, a white Welsh recording artist, does the opposite. Though none of these singers completely rid the song of its color, their choices create different effects. To fully deviate from the inscribed blackness of “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” erases the racial tension between performer and song that makes the piece so crucial to the story. Without its racialized content and delivery, “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” fails to signify blackness; it is simply a musical number.

We see this shift later in Act II. Julie’s white friend Magnolia uses “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” as her audition song for the Trocadero nightclub in Chicago. Though she grew up hearing it as a black folk song, Magnolia sings it squarely on the beat, pitch-perfect, at a drowsy lento tempo. Her approach fails to impress the nightclub owner, so she attempts the song again as a rag: lively, syncopated, rollicking. Ironically, the club prefers “Can’t Help” in another black musical idiom – ragtime – in order to prove the song’s (and Magnolia’s) viability as palatable entertainment for (presumably) white audiences.

During Magnolia’s audition, Julie quits the Trocadero and exits the musical altogether, taking with her the song’s original black folk context. Julie’s exit opens a job for Magnolia at the nightclub and opens the song to anyone’s interpretation and appropriation. The country’s racial issues still remain, even if the song itself is no longer racialized.

90 years later, our country continues to grapple with race relations. Renowned singers of various backgrounds have since performed the song, including Lena HorneBarbra StreisandAnnie LennoxKiri Te Kanawa and Natalie ColeBjörk and Cher. See what choices each singer made to navigate the song’s intrinsic blackness.

I graduated!

Ta da! I did it! I graduated summa cum laude from Florida State University with a B.A. in Theatre and a Spanish minor. These past four years blew by so quickly, but I loved just about every second of it! I am honored and privileged to call myself an alumnus of Florida State.

Since I owe you all an update, here’s a brief brag list of my activities/accomplishments this past year:

  • Performed in the opera chorus for Florida State Opera’s La Traviata and Prince of Players – the academic premiere of renowned American composer Carlisle Floyd’s latest opera. Prince of Players marked my 10th production with Florida State Opera!
  • Performed as The Witch in Florida State Opera’s outreach production of Hansel and Gretel, which toured Leon County elementary schools.
  • Cast in my first ever film at FSU’s College of Motion Picture Arts.
  • Inducted into the Garnet and Gold Scholar Society for my engagement with leadership, international experiences, and research during my undergraduate career at FSU.
  • Named Theatre Forum speaker by my peers for the School of Theatre’s Class of 2017. (Thanks guys!!!)

As for my upcoming plans, I’m currently wrapping up another week of outreach performances as The Witch in Hansel and Gretel. Afterwards, I’ll substitute teach various levels of Spanish for Virginia Beach City Public Schools. I’m currently awaiting some news that will decide my future for the next few years…I can’t say much yet (I don’t want to jinx it!), but I’ll be sure to share it here if/when it becomes official!

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GO NOLES!

 

New Headshots!

(Photo credit: André Peele Photography)
(Photo credit: André Peele Photography)

Does the home page look a little different to you? This new photo of me is from my recent photoshoot with André Peele. His work is absolutely fantastic!

All of my new headshots are now posted in my gallery – click here!

To see more of André’s work, check out his website.

P.S. I still owe you an update on my life from this past fall. I’ll share it here as soon as possible!