Danielle de Niese: 'I feel very fortunate, like an Olympian'

The dazzling soprano Danielle de Niese tells David Lister about her life as a Glyndebourne star who is also the lady of the manor

Friday 27 May 2011 00:00 BST

When Danielle de Niese was a child, she drew a picture for her parents. "My mum says I drew two gigantic theatre curtains, and I was in the middle, holding forth to the public."

If a star was born then in the De Niese household, in Australia, one was introduced to the world a couple of decades later. In 2005, a little whirlwind blew threw Glyndebourne and shook its foundations to the core.

The up-and-coming soprano, vivacious, expressive and with striking good looks, played Cleopatra in that season's production of Handel's Julius Caesar. It turned out she could act as well as she could sing, which is magnificently, and her vivacity and general allure knocked out audiences. Chief among her admirers was Gus Christie, the owner of Glyndebourne, and a romance began. It culminated in their marriage in December 2009.

This season De Niese is back, playing Adina, the beautiful landowner who is indifferent to the overtures of a poor peasant in Donizetti's comic melodrama L'elisir d'amore. The show will open during a hectic few days for its leading lady, as a week later an album of her favourite baroque arias will be released by Decca.

Of course, De Niese will be performing at Glyndebourne not just as an internationally acclaimed soprano, but as lady of the manor. That small fact barely impinges on her professional life, she insists, when we meet between rehearsals at the Sussex opera house.

"Of course, marriage has definitely added another dimension. But there's no pressure on either side. I will not be at the long bar having drinks the night before a performance. I have to take care of myself. It's about self-preservation. I will do some entertaining with Gus. I love to support him and be on his arm. It's part of my marriage. But the decision I make about doing an opera at Glyndebourne is about the casting. There have been ones where I have said no. My professional life shouldn't be an influence on whether I spend time at home. My career is my whole life's blood. It's my calling."

When you meet De Niese, you are left in little doubt of that. In the flesh, it's not just her expressive, wide brown eyes and bundle of infectious energy and enthusiasm that strike you. It is her passion for her art.

"I feel very fortunate," she says. "I feel like an Olympian. When I watch the Olympics I cry because I have been through that journey."

De Niese, 32, was born in Melbourne. Both her parents were born in Sri Lanka – her father, who is in banking, has Dutch roots and her mother, the maanger of the American branch of a Swiss vitamin company, has some Scottish ancestry. They both left Sri Lanka as teenagers and moved to Australia. When De Niese was 10 they emigrated to Los Angeles.

Perhaps it is no wonder that with an upbringing in Australia and California behind her, De Niese comes across as an extrovert, outgoing personality, only ever a few milliseconds away from speaking her mind with charm and determination

Of her role in L'elisir, she says: "It's such a wonderful love story. I'm fixated on not turning Adina into this stroppy, petulant, self-obsessed girl – I would say bitch. It's so easy to fall into that but I see her as a generous and kind person. She's a strong, independent person. She dreams of love but I don't know if she dreams of marriage. She's a thinker, an independent spirit."

You get the feeling that she is not the only one. When I ask who tends to decide on how the character is portrayed, De Niese or her director, she answers:" "I'm not a marionette. I want to know why, and we will find the path together.

"I did a Susannah [in The Marriage of Figaro] and I sang 'Io contenta', and the director decided, 'No you're not 'contenta',' so I couldn't smile for six weeks. I had to hide my teeth."

The Glyndebourne production of L'elisir will be an unusual one in that it will be uncut, which is quite a challenge for the person singing Adina.

"My teachers say this is the longest Adina ever. It's uncut and a very taxing role. I've taken it on at a time when I think my voice is ready. I got offers years ago. But you need to know when you're ready to tackle the different repertoire. Unfortunately, opera engagements tend to be made five years in advance and I don't really agree with that. But now because of the economic times that's changing a bit. It's two or three or four years."

Among De Niese's teachers and advisors, at least on an occasional basis, is her girlhood hero, the New Zealand diva Kiri te Kanawa, who famously sang at the wedding of Charles and Diana in 1981. De Niese says: "I still have lessons with Kiri. She was so huge in Australia when I was a child. Kiri was from the southern hemisphere like me and from a mixed background like me."

For her new album, De Niese has chosen her favourites from the baroque period. Making albums, she says, has proved to be a big learning curve, a curve she illustrates with a telling metaphor.

"My voice will grow for another decade. The late 30s is when it settles into the voice you will have for your life. So for me I had to understand that it's like The Truman Show. You're growing up in front of people, in front of their ears."

'L'elisir d'amore', Glyndebourne Festival Opera (01273 813813) 9 June to 4 August. 'Beauty of the Baroque' is out on Decca Classics on 13 June

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