Danielle De Niese

Hi Danielle, firstly congratulations on your new baby daughter!

Thank you, she’s so sweet. It was a surprise discovered in lockdown, but not a corona baby. We couldn’t believe we’d gotten a girl as Gus has 5 boys! But she’s here and she’s wonderful.

How has your lockdown life been?

I guess one of the things that became clear for a lot of people during lockdown was what their family life is like. I do lead an incredibly busy life, but I always try to make time for my family. This just means I do everything else faster, as I don’t want to cut my family time short. What lockdown did was it took away the ‘I need to go’ bit, as I wasn’t rehearsing, and it amplified my family time, which was incredible. I really do value family life, so it’s not like I’d never had it before, but at the same time, I didn’t have anything pulling me away. For instance, we might often go for a walk in the gardens at Glyndebourne but it would always be in between meetings or work, so it was nice to realise that we could just stay in the garden! What a thought?!

Your career is outstanding, what have been the highlights for you?

Cleopatra at Glyndebourne was a major milestone in my career. It was a role that had already resonated with me four years earlier, when I made my European debut as Cleopatra in the Netherlands Opera when I was 21. I really felt that I was born to do that role, and I could never have imagined just how successful that production would have been, for me personally and really for everyone involved. It catapulted all our careers to different heights, and mine went crazy after that! I was courted by record companies and signed a record deal with Universal Records. But also some wonderful friendship were born out of it; David McVicar is godfather to my son.

Also my Met debut was a huge milestone as well, when I was 19 and sang the role of Barbarina in The Marriage of Figaro by Jonathan Miller, conducted by James Levine. It had this incredibly starry cast: Renée Fleming as Countess Almaviva, Dwayne Croft as the Count, and Susanne Mentzer as Cherubino. Every superstar at the time was in it, and it was incredible as I was 19!

Handel’s roles are really hard not to love. He was so sympathetic to all of his heroines and villains, and he wrote them really well. So even if you didn’t agree with the plot line of a villain, you would just fall in love with them anyway!

Where do you stay when you visit London?

It is a little bit of a regret for me that I don’t often stay in town. I had already gotten engaged by the time I made my Covent Garden debut, and I remember I was thinking that I’d go and live in London, but my fiancé said to me, ‘You’re going to commute from here, right?’ And I said, ‘Oh, OK, I guess I will!’ So I thought, there goes my London! What that means though is that when I do go to London I really make the most of it. I often stay at the Langham Hotel, which is also where I got married, so it has a very fond place in my heart. I also stay with friends in Notting Hill, and Clarkes in Notting Hill is one of my favourite restaurants. I love to go there for breakfast, lunch and dinner, pretty much everything! I go to New Bond Street a lot as well, as I love to pick up new jewellery at Van Cleef & Arpels.

You’re a big advocate for making opera more accessible and mainstream. Where do you think a good place to start would be if you’re interested opera?

You can get cheap tickets at Glyndebourne! But it really depends on how much time you have and how open you are to travel. When I try to get people interested in opera, I do recommend they come to a show that I’m in – I know that can sound egotistical – but I think when you’ve met the performer already, and there’s already that connection, it means you’re a bit more connected to what you’re seeing on the stage. So I do tend to say that, but I think it works. I do it with kids a lot: I always try to meet school groups before they see the show, so that we can chat a little. Then they see you on stage they think, ‘Oh I know her!’

In terms of composers, Mozart is a great composer, and Puccini’s La Boheme is a great first opera to see. One of the things about opera that really sneaks up on people is that they don’t realise they already know quite a few of the songs. You can come across music that has transcended classical music and sort of become an icon in itself. The other important thing is that opera can sneak up on you and become an incredibly moving experience. It’s one of the only experiences which is completely un-amplified, so its such a raw human experience. Everything these days comes out of a box, the splendour of (classical music) can hit you in the chest sometimes, because you don’t aways expect that level of potency and power. If you combine that with an incredible theatrical performance it can be so transformative. Often people don’t expect that before they go and see a show.

You’re an ambassador for the International Rescue Committee, can you tell us about the work they do and why it’s so close to your heart?

It was founded by Albert Einstein to help people flee persecution and conflict. I’ve worked with them for eight years now, and I’m excited to be doing an address for them in one of their events in May. They provide refuge and safe and dignified passage, they go into communities that desperately need help and they provide them with support. In 2014 I went to Tanzania to visit Nyarugusu, the largest refugee camp in the world, and I spoke to so many children dealing with things that they really didn’t need to be dealing with, but at the same time I saw that they were being provided with skills training, school supplies, mental health support and practical support like water, electricity but also things like parenting skills. They supply self-defence classes for the young girls in these camps, teaching them how to speak up for themselves, and know their body and their choices. Everyone I’ve met there is such an incredible person, just chugging along without recognition, without looking for global spotlights; no matter what, they’re always there.

You don’t always realise that refugees aren’t poor. They are bankers, lawyers doctors, who had to pick up and leave their lives because they were in imminent danger. It’s quite a decision to make: to get on a boat when you can’t swim; to bring infants with you who can’t swim. I think it’s so important to understand that it’s a humanitarian crisis, not a political one.

Has your idea of success changed over the years?

Really, me and my family are counting all our blessing at the moment, especially as there are some people who are being challenged in ways that are more dire than the challenges that we face, even though everybody faces their own challenges. I think the goalposts for success change sometimes in subtle ways but in general probably not. As much as there are a number of things I still want to do, I think there’s a certain amount of satisfaction that I feel is important to have along the way, so that you’re not constantly hungering for more or feeling incomplete. You can still yearn for more but I think it’s nice to stop halfway up the mountain and look at the view.

Dannielle presents and performs in Handel’s oratorio “La Resurrezione” which will be aired on Sky Arts May 3rd at 7pm.

The soprano will also be appearing alongside Brain May from Queen and other incredible artists for World Earth Day on Sky Arts, and in La Boheme at the Royal Opera House this summer.

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