The Thin Lady Sings

Danielle de Niese strode through the winding hallways of the Metropolitan Opera House’s basement on a recent morning with a reporter, navigating its warrens as though showing a sibling around a favorite playground.

“It’s like coming home,” she said, to come to the Met. And in fact she was in a sense raised here: She was 18 when she became the youngest singer ever to be accepted into the company’s prestigious program for young artists.

Now she is in an enviable position: she is one of the company’s fastest-rising stars, and at 30 years old, still has a long career ahead of her. Arriving at the stage door, she commenced a task fit for a diva: arranging the return of some diamonds with a representative of Van Cleef & Arpels.

De Niese is tall and slender, with coffee-colored skin and long, straight, dark hair that glows with purplish highlights. In a simple black dress with a chunky black bag, she was elegant, but slouched comfortably in her chair and gesticulated widely.

“I thought I was just twittering out into the void!” she said as we discussed her social-networking proclivities. (In addition to Twitter, she has a blog and is active on both Facebook and MySpace.) She certainly wasn’t on Sept. 13, when she tweeted for the first time in a month, to make her apologies for not updating: “haven’t twittered, cos still deeply upset over particular quote, but can’t say more as of yet :(”

The quote to which she was referring was from an Aug. 16 article about the Salzburg Festival in the London Observer, which picked up an obscure quote Ms. de Niese had made in an Italian newspaper interview.

“Opera-goers at the festival,” Vanessa Thorpe wrote, “have been wowed by a succession of sleek singers, including the Australian-born soprano Danielle de Niese, who has welcomed the new emphasis on the visual as well as aural experience. ‘In opera we needed this breath of fresh air,’ de Niese said recently. ‘We could not go on being elephants on stage.’”

The quote quickly swept through the opera blogosphere, even getting mentioned by nth-wave feminist blog Jezebel, which called de Niese’s comment “infuriating.”It is an open secret that heavy female opera singers, even very famous ones, are denied parts because of their weight. Deborah Voigt, a renowned soprano, got gastric bypass surgery in 2005—and lost a hundred pounds—after being fired by London’s Royal Opera House for not being able to fit into a small black cocktail dress in their production of Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos, one of Ms. Voigt’s signature roles. Angela Meade, a young soprano who will join Ms. de Niese in the Met’s Figaro for a performance in December, told The Observer in July that auditioners have repeatedly told her they want to cast her but that she’s “not right” for their productions.

I asked De Niese what she meant by the “elephants” quote, and she said she’d been misinterpreted.

“We’ve had great singers, slim singers, bigger singers, athletic singers, robust singers, scrawny singers, we’ve had singers of all shapes and sizes throughout time,” she said. “And, you know, the artistry’s what counts. It’s the artistry. … What people don’t know, what people who spend time sort of, like, gossiping about a role might not know, is that, I mean, once you get onto the audition stage, you are just like everybody else; it’s what you do vocally and what you do as an artist that gets you the job or not. … Really, they want to see talent. Talent trumps everything.”

I brought up Ms. Meade’s comments about having been denied parts, and asked whether appearance—and weight, in particular—plays any role whatsoever in casting.

“I don’t think so, honestly, to tell you the truth,” Ms. de Niese said. “I think that again, it’s your temperament, it’s what you give as an artist, that puts you in the world. And there’s room for everybody. That’s the thing, you know, it’s not, there’s not a particular way of defining what makes people successful, there are lots of different factors that make a lot of different people in the world successful. You know, how can you quantify or measure what determines success? But usually talent is at the top of that list.”

Paradoxically, however, she explained how hard she has to work to keep her own weight down.

“The irony of it,” she said, “is that I struggle with my weight all the time. … It has nothing to do with me feeling any pressure from anyone to stay in shape because otherwise I won’t get a job. That’s a choice that I made but the irony is, I do have to work hard to manage my weight. For people to be trashing me because of it, or sort of just running with it, it’s a funny way to realize that your words can be misconstrued.”

For all this sunshiney talk about there being room for everyone, de Niese–rather than, say, Angela Meade–is the kind of singer Peter Gelb has been waiting for. She’s stunning onstage, filmogenic, engaging, American (only a trace of a continental accent, to add some class!), with a lovely voice the perfect size for HD broadcasts. She’s compelling both onstage and onscreen. She’s tailormade for our globalized, fashionably multiethnic times.

The Thin Lady Sings