An ill-timed respiratory problem has temporarily sidelined Denyce Graves, who was to sing the lead in George Bizet’s “Carmen” with Opera New Jersey. Several days into a two-week rehearsal period, the mezzo-soprano, whose name is virtually synonymous with the role, began six to eight weeks’ vocal rest, on strict doctor’s orders.

By a stroke of good luck, Kirstin Chavez, who many think is building a career with strong portrayals of the beautiful gypsy, was available. Chavez cancelled engagements in Europe and flew to New Jersey from Dallas in order to step in. She joined rehearsals the evening of her arrival, eight days before the opening.

Performances of “Carmen” take place Friday, February 5, at McCarter Theater; Sunday, February 7, at the State Theater; and Friday, February 12, at NJPAC. The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra is the orchestral partner for the run. Richard Leech plays the unfortunate corporal Don Jose and Luis Ledesma sings Escamillo, the toreador. Joseph Rescigno conducts. Bernard Uzan is the stage director.

Graves says, “I am deeply disappointed to have to withdraw from Opera New Jersey’s production of ‘Carmen.’ I arrived in New Jersey on the tail end of a bronchial virus and rehearsed with my colleagues in anticipation of a wonderful run of performances. Frustratingly, the bronchial virus got worse over the past week, and my physicians have recommended that I come out of the production in order for my body to recover completely.”

For U.S. 1’s originally-planned coverage of the ONJ performances, Graves was available for the interview which follows. It contains insights about the opera, and reveals the approach of a singer who has made the role of Carmen her own:

The provocative “Carmen,” of Georges Bizet’s opera is one of mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves’ signature roles. Since her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1995, she has played the part on four continents. “Opera News” described her career as “brimming with Carmens.”

As an opener for a telephone interview, I ask Graves how many Carmens she has sung. She has heard this question before. Too busy to tally the total, the unspoiled diva says, with a touch of embarrassment, “I don’t know. I told myself at the beginning of this year: ‘Denyce, just sit down and count them.’” The next landmark number is, no doubt, someplace past 50.

Charged with guarding Carmen, who has fought with one of her co-workers in a Seville cigarette factory, Don Jose lets her escape, and she promises him her love. But it fades, and she is attracted to bullfighter Escamillo. Outside the arena where Escamillo is to fight, Carmen tells Jose that their relationship is over. He kills her and gives himself up as cheers for Escamillo’s victory over the bull are heard from within the bull ring.

Graves says that she has no fixed idea of Carmen as a character. “I have had to remain open and flexible where Carmen is concerned,” she says. “It’s one of those operas where everybody has an opinion. A lot depends on how the director thinks. And it depends on who I’m singing with. As I keep singing Carmen, I keep refining my ideas and discovering things about Carmen as a character. But certain things about her character stay.”

Unfortunately, the printed page cannot capture how Graves speaks. Her voice is warm and direct. She is poised and self-possessed. When she starts a sentence, she finishes it. Her pacing is comfortable; she speaks slowly enough for me to take accurate notes on what she says — just barely. She talks about Carmen as if Carmen were a real person.

“If I had to choose one word for Carmen,” Graves says, “she represents freedom; she seeks freedom. She knows what she wants. She is a no nonsense person. She has a fun time with living. She enjoys being woman and is aware of her power as a woman. She’s queen of her environment. She’s fatalistic and has tremendous wisdom and insight. Carmen doesn’t have much respect for the establishment, or for the law. She says that love doesn’t abide by laws. She runs her life by doing what feels right to her. Those things remain from production to production. They’re obviously fleshed out through the lens of my own experience. She has left a mark on me, and I have left a mark on her.”

“It’s hard to tell where Carmen stops and I begin. I think of her as an honest woman. She’s completely natural. I understand her and share many of her feelings. In Act Two when Carmen sings and dances for Don Jose, it’s an extremely generous act. When he says he must get back to the barracks, she’s insulted and humiliated. I, as Denyce, can completely understand her anger and humiliation. I understand that kind of fury.

“I do not think that Carmen is a loose woman. She can be portrayed as someone who will say yes to anyone; that’s not what makes her so desirable. She is in charge of herself and her sexuality. Sometimes she uses her sexuality as a weapon; when she does, it’s a choice, a very thoughtful choice. Opera is about the human experience. That’s what’s so wonderful about it.

“The role of Carmen is not vocally appealing,” Graves continues. She doesn’t get tuneful arias like Micaela or Don Jose. She always appears in ensemble numbers, not solos. It’s never just her. What she does depends on the participation of others. She has to make herself stand out in a crowd.

“As a singer portraying Carmen, you work so hard, in terms of energy, output, and emotional range,” Graves says. “Theatrically, Carmen has more to do than anybody else. Her character doesn’t lend itself to sympathy. But she’s a magnificent woman. I have a great amount of respect for her, and feel very protective of her.”

A middle child, Graves was born in Washington, D.C., in 1964 and brought up by her mother, a single parent. “I am so blessed to do what I really love,” she says. “I watched my mother walk out the door every day to a job she hated. But she had to support three children.”

Graves attended Duke Ellington School of the Arts, an elite public high school in Washington. At 14, she saw her first opera, a dress rehearsal for Beethoven’s “Fidelio” and was enchanted. At Ohio’s Oberlin Conservatory of Music she studied with Helen Hodam; when Hodam moved to Boston’s New England Conservatory, Graves followed her. Supporting herself by working as many as three jobs at a time, Graves graduated from the New England Conservatory in 1988.

She told Linda Killian of Washingtonian magazine in a 1996 interview, “My voice is fat. I need to work to make it skinny.” For U.S. 1 she explains, “My instrument, [my voice], is rounded. It has lots of sound. I have to compress it and make it narrow to sing in a refined manner. I work to make my voice as lean as possible.”

Graves is married to Robert Montgomery, chief of transplant surgery at Johns Hopkins Medical Center in Baltimore. The couple lives in Maryland, close to Montgomery’s work. Their daughter, Ella Thais, is five. “It doesn’t matter where I live,” says Graves. “As long as I’m near an airport, I’m OK.”

How does Graves manage being a wife and mother, in addition to pursuing her with career? “Oh, yeah,” she says, her voice regretfully falling. “I’m doing the best I can. It’s more and more difficult to leave the family. My husband has very demanding work; it requires his complete and full participation all the time. Me, too. I’m out and on the line. We both have work that is meaningful; it makes us better partners and a better mom and dad.

“I’m really domestic. Maybe I love being home so much because I don’t have to do it all the time. We have a tremendous amount of support from reliable, dependable people. It takes a village to run our lives.”

Did it matter at the beginning of her career that Graves is black, I ask, does it matter now? “It always matters in life that I am black,” she says. “ It matters every second. It matters as much as it did 20 years ago. Now when I walk into a room, a lot of people know who I am. But some presenters lack imagination and lack courage. A lot of directors say that they don’t see me in certain roles because of my color. I suppose someone could say the same thing about being too tall or too fat. Still, I would like to think that the work we do transcends all that.”

Under the auspices of Springpoint Foundation, Graves and other cast members are in residence at Meadow Lakes, the senior community in Hightstown. Springpoint, the largest provider of senior care in New Jersey, is the name adopted recently by PHS Senior Living, formerly known as Presbyterian Homes Services. A non-profit, Springpoint operates five continuing care residential communities; five assisted living facilities; and 16 affordable housing communities for residents with restricted incomes.

Springpoint Foundation is the philanthropic arm of Springpoint. In 2006 the foundation created Encore, an initiative bringing arts and culture to seniors. Events of the Encore program are open to residents of Springpoint communities without reservations; Encore events are open to the public, with reservations.

Members of the “Carmen” cast began their two-week rehearsal phase at Meadow Lakes on Monday, January 25. For the rehearsal period, cast members live and take their meals in the community. Under the Encore program, residents are welcome at all rehearsals, in addition to special Encore events.

To intensify residents’ understanding of the opera, a study guide provides a playbill, synopsis of the opera, articles about composer Bizet, answers to frequently asked questions, and other background information.

Among the contributors to the study guide is Meadow Lakes resident Michael Barnett. A retired academic chemical physicist, Barnett has taught at the University of London, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Columbia University, and the City University of New York. He recounts his explorations of “Carmen” and wonders whether the opera is a hoax. He is drawn to the possibility that librettists Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halevy, known critics of Parisian society, produced in their story a satire exaggerating features of the Prosper Merimee novella that is the source for “Carmen.”

Barnett’s considerations may very well add to the buzz that Opera New Jersey’s Carmen preparations bring to Meadow Lakes. During the rehearsal period, residents enjoy a close-up view of the development of the production while performers enjoy the facilities at the senior community.

Carmen, Opera New Jersey, McCarter Theater, Friday, February 5, 7:30 p.m.; State Theater, New Brunswick. Sunday, February 7, 3 p.m. Bizet’s final opera with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra; Kirstin Chavez as Carmen, Richard Leech as Don Jose; and Louis Ledesma as Escamillo. Sung in French with English supertitles. $25 to $109. 800-ALLEGRO or www.opera-nj.org. Also, for McCarter 609-258-2787.

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