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Dessay and Solfege

In his interview with French soprano Natalie Dessay (Natalie Dessay, nouvelles scènes, August 4), Christian Merlin revealed some interesting things about her (my translation):

Do you know yourself better now [after surgeries for vocal nodes]?

I know my limits better. I know that with a high voice like mine, I cannot sing in the low register unless I am relaxed, but relaxing is not my strong suit! I also know that I am handicapped by my sightsinging ability, which is, for example, the major reason why I could never memorize the role of Lulu. Finally, I know that I cannot learn a new opera and two oratorios in three months while also preparing a recital, because I am not an organized person. [...]

What is your next major role?

I am going to perform my first Mélisande in a concert version in September, with my husband, Laurent Naouri, as Golaud, under the direction of Stéphane Denève. I hesitated, I opened the score, I closed it again, thinking that this wasn't for me. I was about to cancel when Stéphane told me, "You can't do this to me." He promised to teach me the role at the piano this summer, measure by measure. There are not many conductors like him anymore!
Soprano Natalie Dessay as Olympia, thanks to Sandy Steiglitz for the imageMusicorum et cantorum magna est distancia, as Guido of Arezzo put it in his treatise Regulae rhythmicae, meaning that sometimes singers can make beautiful sounds without really understanding much about music. It's good to know (or frightening, depending on your perspective) that things haven't changed much since the 11th century. Even today, in my experience, it is the singers in a school of music or conservatory, especially the ones with big, beautiful voices, who are most likely to fail their first-year sightsinging course. As I wrote in my review of last season's production of Tales of Hoffmann in Baltimore, this may be the sort of singer Offenbach had in mind when he created the role of Olympia, a literally brainless mechanical doll that sings incredible coloratura melodies. When it runs out of power, you just wind its crank again. (The quotation from Guido continues, Isti dicunt, illi sciunt, quae componit musica. / Nam qui facit, quod non sapit, diffinitur bestia, or The latter [singers] speak about what music is, while the former [musicians] actually know it. No one who does without knowing is any different from the animals.)

Olympia, of course, is one of Dessay's most renowned roles, and she sings the hell out of it. (The image shown here is from Sandy Steiglitz's Opera Gallery.) Fine voices are like fine instruments, because people will go to extraordinary lengths to hear them played. However, the best instruments can be given to the most skilled and intelligent musicians, while the voices end up with whoever has them and cannot be transferred. Frankly, I don't care how La Dessay learns her part (God bless you, Stéphane Denève!), as long as she sings. I think the performance of Pelléas she mentions will take place on October 6, with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, where Stéphane Denève is entering his first season as music director, in Glasgow Royal Concert Hall.

Natalie Dessay also recently underwent another type of surgery, the famous Proust questionnaire, in the weekly feature by Roland Mihaïl et Antoine Silber (Questionnaire de Proust: Natalie Dessay, June 27) in L'Express. Here are a few revealing excerpts (my translation), which I quote to show that La Dessay's intelligence is not at issue, just her sightsinging (Anne-Carolyn Bird, who has just kicked vocal ass in Santa Fe, is living proof that there are intelligent sopranos):
Who are your favorite authors?
Dino Buzzati, Italo Calvino, and Stefan Zweig.

What book is on your beside table?
Stefan Zweig's Die Welt von gestern (The world of yesterday).

Your favorite composers?
Bach, Mozart, Strauss, Brahms, Rachmaninov. And Michel Legrand.

Your favorite painters?
Rembrandt, Toulouse-Lautrec, Schiele.
Calvino, Zweig, Legrand, Schiele: maybe she wants to write for Ionarts! If you want to throw flowers at her after seeing her in Santa Fe or at the Met next season, she also says that her favorite flowers are lilacs.

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