Stage Struck

Classic Arts Features   Stage Struck
Natalie Dessay's early ambition was to be a dancer. Then, dreaming of a career as an actress, she turned her sights to the theater. Today she's one of the world's top opera stars, hailed for her extraordinary gifts as a singing actress. On the eve of the 2007-08 season, the French soprano — and inveterate stage animal — spoke to the Met's Elena Park about portraying Donizetti's fragile Lucia, her upcoming theater debut, and why doing comedy requires training.

You bookend the season in two new productions. What excites you about these roles?

I'm very happy about what will happen this year at the Met [and that I get] to show these different things, because I consider myself more of an actress than a singer. I wanted to become an actress when I was very young, and through theater I came to opera. But opera chose me. It was not I who chose opera. I realized that I had a voice, and maybe it was easier for me to go onstage with my singing voice than to be only an actress.

How do you tackle the dramatic challenges of characters like Lucia or Ophelia while meeting the vocal demands?

You have to keep this distance. It's not a question of looking at yourself playing the role — no, you're really intensely in the scene — but something, part of yourself, is held back in order to be able to sing and to play it correctly and to do what we decided before in the rehearsals. But of course you have to let it go and to control at the same time. It's like playing tennis. You have your technique but in the moment you play the match, you have to let it go in order to be able to win.

Have you always been able to do this?

No, I had to work on it. In the beginning I couldn't let it go at all. For example, I'm very happy because I just played Manon in Barcelona and for the first time in my life I was able to cry and at the same time control my singing. I really wanted to work on that specifically on this production, because in every production I have a goal, like an exercise or a challenge. And it's always theatrical. So in this production, my goal was not to do anything, just feel the things, receive the things from the outside, and react. But without doing anything, without willing anything, without wanting anything. And I was much more relaxed than before, and that's why I really could feel the situations strongly.

You've sung Lucia several times before, though this will be your first time performing a bel canto role at the Met. Do you have any goals for this new production?

[Laughing] No, I fix my goal after a while. When I know the people, when I know how [the work] will be. So for the moment I don't know, but probably I will try to forget everything I did in this role till now. To be as fresh as possible, as for the first time.

Director Mary Zimmerman describes Lucia's madness as a journey, saying it is a series of "small actions that can express, externally, what's going on internally." Is the mad scene the most difficult part for you?

Oh, no, it's the easiest part! What is really difficult is the duet with the baritone in Act II because it's a very low and long duet. The mad scene is very easy to sing for me. The orchestra is light, and it's very, very well written for my voice. It's a little lighter than this duet. It's very well built dramatically.

Do you think you will ever do "straight theater?"

I will do it in three years for the first time. It will be in Paris, a play of Thomas Bernhard called The Ignorant and the Madman. I'm very happy because it's the story of a singer who sings in Vienna, the Queen of the Night, for the 200th time, and she becomes sort of crazy about that. It's a bit my story.

In Laurent Pelly's La Fille du R_giment (a co-production with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden and the Vienna State Opera), your Marie certainly has her hands full, racing around doing all the laundry and the ironing for the entire regiment.

I needed four weeks to be able to do it physically. Because at the beginning, for example, [during] the first duet I was so out of breath, I couldn't go to the end — I couldn't sing the high notes at the end. But then after four weeks of training I could do it ... But it's really a goal, to prove that opera singers are real actors. I think for me, the music is not the goal. The goal is theater.

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