Born c. 1965 in Washington, D.C. to Dorothy (a registrar at University of the District of Columbia) and Charles (a Baptist minister) Graves (Dorothy remarried to Oliver Kenner, a maintenance worker, after Charles left family, c. 1967); married David Perry (a classical guitar importer, born c. 1950) c. 1990. Addresses: Home--Resides in Leesburg, Virginia.
Unlikely diva Denyce Graves has brought new life to international opera circles. Her rich mezzo soprano vocal style, characterized by the American Record Guide as a "full and voluptuous instrument," has made her famous in Europe and the United States, carrying her far beyond her tough, inner-city beginnings. Graves grew up in turbulent southwest Washington, D.C., a neighborhood littered with nondescript tenement buildings and plagued by drugs and violence, a long way from the celebrated opera houses of Europe and the United States. In her signature role as Carmen in Bizet's classic opera of the same name, Graves has performed in Paris's Bastille Opera, Vienna's State Opera, and New York's Metropolitan Opera. Graves travels nine months of the year performing around the globe and has portrayed Carmen, the Spanish cigarette girl, in over 30 productions. With her Met debut, Graves distinguished herself as one of opera's rising stars and, in addition to her prodigious talent and dramatic flair, she is known as one of the friendliest of mezzo sopranos in international music. Her Met performance in January of 1996, documented by the CBS television news program, 60 Minutes, returned generally positive critical reviews, though the 100 Graves family members in attendance would argue that there has never been a more dazzling Carmen.
But while her life today may be the stuff of dreams, her youth was anything but. In a story recounted in the Washington Post, a teenaged Graves came face to face with the kind of tragedy that all too often destroys the aspirations of urban children. She was on her way to a Washington, D.C., vocal competition when, as her bus rolled to a stop, a gunshot rang out and its victim fell against the door. In the panic, the driver and passengers fled the gruesome scene. "I remember leaping over that body out into the night and the rain, and just running and running and running in the dark," she told the Washington Post. "I didn't know where I was, I didn't know where I was going. I just knew I had to get away from there. As far away as I could get." Under the firm wing of a loving mother, Graves and her two siblings managed to escape their Galveston Street neighborhood. While her mother, Dorothy, worked as a typist at Federal City College (now the University of the District of Columbia), Graves, her older brother, and younger sister were given chores and productive projects to complete to keep them from the streets. Popular music was forbidden in the house and television viewing had to meet the strict standards of their mother. "She didn't want her babies to be lost to the streets, like so many," Graves told the New York Times.
The Graveses were active members of a D.C. baptist church, attending services two or three times a week, and integral members of the choir. Thursday nights in the Graves household was music night and the children formed a gospel group their mother dubbed "The Inspirational Children of God." The children traveled to churches around Washington to perform and Denyce gradually developed into the group's soloist. "I was very shy," she told the Houston Chronicle, "and my mother didn't want me to be shy. So she would give me solos to sing. She would push me in front and say, 'You have to get over this, Denyce.'" Graves became known to the other kids in the neighborhood as "Hollywood" because she did not pursue the same activities as they did--she spent her time buried in books of poetry or doing homework. Through all her days at Patterson Elementary and then at Friendship Junior High, Graves was an outsider. "I was one of the weird kids, one of those who was not 'in,'" she remarked to Ebony.
At the suggestion of junior high teacher Judith Grove, Graves auditioned for admission to Washington's Duke Ellington School for the Performing Arts. Though she initially planned to study theater, faculty members encouraged her to pursue music. Graves studied under voice teacher Helen Hodam and progressed quickly. It was at the Ellington School that Graves realized that opera was her true calling. A class trip to the Kennedy Center in 1980 to view a rehearsal of Beethoven's Fidelio triggered Graves's operatic ambitions and after a teacher loaned her a copy of Marilyn Horne singing arias from Cavalleria Rusticana, Graves pinned her hopes on such a career. "I thought it was beautiful. I listened to it over and over and over again, and the more I heard it, the more I said, 'Yea, this is me. This is what I want to do,'" she remarked to the Washington Post.
Graves worked hard at singing in French, German, and Italian and caught a break when, at a recital, a member of the Washington Opera chorus heard her sing and remarked to Graves that her singing was wonderful. "I had always known how my singing made me feel, but it had never occurred to me that it might provoke the same sort of emotions in others," she told the Washington Post. When teacher Helen Hodam left the Ellington School and moved on to Oberlin College in Ohio, Graves followed. Despite offers for full scholarships elsewhere, Graves chose to study with her high school mentor. At Oberlin Conservatory Graves worked several jobs to pay the private school's tuition, cleaning dormitories and working in the cafeteria to get herself through. She performed her first full-length opera at Oberlin, singing in Eros and Psyche, a work commissioned in celebration of the college's sesquicentennial. When Hodam left Oberlin for the New England Conservatory, Graves again followed, still working diligently at both her craft and odd jobs to support herself. Eventually Graves progressed through the ranks and became known as one of the conservatory's top prospects.
Poised for success, Graves auditioned at the conservatory for the Metropolitan Opera's Young Artist Program. She passed the opening rounds and was set to perform at the final round in New York. "I had to win. I was four months behind in my rent. I couldn't pay for the rented dress I was wearing," she confessed to the New York Times. The stress from working long hours as a hotel desk clerk in Boston and her rigorous vocal training caught up with her, however, and her performance in New York was less than representative of her talents. Crushed by her lackluster performance and experiencing severe vocal problems, Graves visited doctor after doctor to find successful treatment. When none presented itself, she gave up singing entirely and resigned herself to a job as a secretary in a Boston hospital. When a doctor whom she had previously visited reported that her condition was nothing more than a treatable thyroid problem, Graves hesitantly decided to give singing another try. The Houston Grand Opera called her three times before she would accept an apprenticeship in 1988.
In Houston, Graves had the opportunity to work with the legendary Placido Domingo in a production of Otello by Verdi. Domingo, engaged by her abilities, became a strong supporter and helped launch her career in earnest. He told the New York Times, "What impressed me immediately about her, aside from her obvious vocal and physical beauty, was an aura of the dramatic about her." After completing the apprenticeship in 1990, she offered her distinct take on the role of Carmen with the Minnesota Opera in a modern production of the classic, set in 1950s America rather than 19th-century Spain. Choosing not to listen to previous versions of the opera, Graves opened herself to a new interpretation of the beloved character. "I loved the new concept," she remarked to the Washington Times, "staging the opera as a kind of 1950s drama with hoods and street toughs."
Though she established herself professionally in the role of Carmen, Graves looks to complement her repertoire with other roles. She told the Houston Chronicle, "It's a popular opera. This is a problem for my career. I want people to come to the theater because I'm singing, not because it's Carmen." Though Graves is booked by opera companies around the world through 1998, many of her roles will be as Carmen due to her unique vocal character and dramatic presence. Former Washington Opera director Martin Feinstein commented to People, "She's the definitive Carmen. She has a beautiful voice with great range. She's beautiful and sexy. Not only that, she's very nice."
by Rich Bowen
Denyce Graves's Career
Began vocal training singing in church choirs; formal training began at the Duke Ellington School for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.; studied at Oberlin Conservatory at Oberlin College in Ohio; studied at the New England Conservatory, Boston; after nearly a year away from music due to vocal problems, took an apprenticeship with the Houston Grand Opera, 1988-90; performed Verdi's Otello opposite tenor Placido Domingo; performed lead role in Bizet's Carmen with the Minnesota Opera, 1991; launched successful European audition tour, 1992; has since played the role of Carmen in over 40 productions, notably at London's Covent Garden, Paris's Bastille Opera, and the Vienna Opera.
Denyce Graves's Awards
Received Grand Prize in 1990's Concours International de Chant de Paris given by Union Femmes Artistes et Musiciennes (Paris International Voice Competition, Union of Female Artists and Musicians).
- Selective Works
- Hamlet (singing the role of Gertrude), EMI, 1994.
- Heroines of Romantic French Opera, FNAC Music (France), 1995.
- Otello (singing the role of Emilia), DG Records, 1995.
- Ebony, February 1996.
- Evening Standard (London), January 19, 1996.
- Houston Chronicle, October 23, 1994; October 29, 1994.
- Houston Post, November 7, 1994.
- Los Angeles Times, January 26, 1996.
- New York Times, October 14, 1995.
- Opera News, December 25, 1993; March 5, 1994; February 18, 1995; January 6, 1996.
- People, October 23, 1995.
- Washington Post, February 10, 1994; March 26, 1995; October 9, 1995.
- Washington Times, March 24, 1995.