Cher Public

Return of the king

Fifteen years after his first parterre box interview, that criterion of countertenors David Daniels speaks of Oscar Wilde, Marilyn Horne, marriage and political art.

parterre box: Welcome to Philadelphia. I found this book at the library that you might find interesting: Oscar Wilde and the Vampire Murders by Gyles Brandeth.

David Daniels: They’re a whole series of books. They’re incredible. Sort of Oscar Wilde’s twist on Sherlock Holmes. Unfortunately, it’s not Benedict Cumberbatch.

PB: There seem to be a lot of Oscar Wildes floating around out there: playwright, bon vivant, family man, aesthete, martyr, even hero of detective novels. Who is the Oscar Wilde of Theodore Morrison‘s opera Oscar? Who is your Oscar?

DD: When I approached this situation and this opera the first time, I just made sure it was clear to everyone that I’m not here to do an imitation of Oscar Wilde, to emulate him, to do his mannerisms. To me, more important about this piece is to get the message out about this man, his story and him as a human being. So it’s really my own personal memories and emotional feelings of similar things, though obviously I’ve not been in prison. That’s sort of where I have to dig deep with this. Our story is not about the happiness and the frivolity and the holding court at parties. it’s about a part of Oscar Wilde that about 90% of the population is not aware of.

PB: Tell me about how Oscar came about.

DD: I was singing a recital in London with Martin Katz and John Cox (the stage director who coauthored Oscar‘s libretto) was in the audience. I sang a set of songs that Theo composed for me called “Chamber Music” based on five James Joyce poems. John Cox just loved the music. He came backstage and met Theo, and said “You should write an opera,” and Theo said “I will now!” and they came up with the idea of Oscar. I said I wanted it to be something political in nature and a subject matter that is relevant today, something that can be understood today. It just seemed perfect. I didn’t know how perfect until I got into it.

PB: What was it like working with a living composer?

DD: It was wonderful! Theo was my choral professor at the University of Michigan, so I knew him well. He would fly to the Lyric Opera of Chicago or wherever I was singing and bring new music to me. He knew my range, he knew where the best “sweet” part of the voice was for me, so I was really part of this project since its inception, which was almost a decade ago. Although it was hard to get anyone really interested or take it seriously because Theodore Morrison wasn’t a household name as a modern composer.

PB: This is his first opera?

DD: His only opera. My guess is that it will be his only opera. I ended having to get a recording studio. We did it in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I put some students in it and paid the engineer to do a demo CD. That finally got Charles MacKay (General Director of Santa Fe Opera) and David Devan (General Director of Philadelphia Opera) interested.

PB: For people who aren’t familiar with Morrison’s music, what should they expect?

DD: They should expect “Theodore Morrison.” You know, Theo was a singer too, and because of that he really knows how to write for the voice. I’ve always thought there was some “Brittenesque” quality to his music. It’s accessible. It’s not all easy. It’s not easy to learn, to say the least. I’m in the process right now of learning Trinculo in Thomas AdesThe Tempest. I’ll be making my Vienna State Opera debut in the spring in that. Now that’s some tough music. I’m hoping doing Oscar will help train me for that.

PB: I don’t know how I feel about Oscar Wilde, the person. For example, from what I’ve read, he had every opportunity to flee to the continent before he went to prison and chose not to. Why?

DD: I don’t think any of us know why. I have my personal view that there was an ego there that was just so enormous. He’d gotten out of everything, nothing like this had ever happened. he had already had two mistrials. He wasn’t found guilty until his third trial. I don’t think he thought anything was going to happen to him. When he was found guilty in the courtroom, I don’t think he had any inkling. it didn’t scare him—he thought he was untouchable. What we do in the opera is tell the darker side of what happened to him, how horrible it was in the prison. He had no paper, no pens. Those Victorian prisoners dressed in hooded masks so nobody could see each other and nobody could communicate with each other except at chapel on Sunday. It was horrible. And all of that was for being gay. But you look at The Imitation Game, this movie that’s just come out about Alan Turing, and 50 years later it was still happening… the castration…

PB: Even, in some countries, now…

DD: Absolutely. Even though things have improved, and there’s a bigger dialogue, marriage equality and all that stuff, it’s not getting through obviously to the youth of this country and around the world, because the young gay suicide rate has just skyrocketed because of non-acceptance.

PB: I would like to think kids have it easier today than we did coming up…

DD: I would like to think that too, I would like think that operas like Oscar or shows like Will & Grace have provided role models to change things, but the statistics don’t say that. The bullying hasn’t stopped. The hate crimes have not slowed down. It just happened here in Philadelphia. So it’s scary.

PB: Do you think Oscar Wilde would have considered himself a gay hero?

DD: I want him to be a hero much more than I want him to be a martyr. But prison killed him; or rather the ear injury that he got in prison is what killed him. So he was basically killed for being a homosexual. This great mind: he died at 46 years old. Can you imagine what things he could have written, what things we could have read? That asshole Bosie (Lord Alfred Douglas) lived to be in his seventies! I hope he looked really old.

PB: Congratulations are in order. Last year you got married…

DD: June 21st.

PB: …by Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg—who also happens to be a big opera fan. How did all that come about?

DD: She was quite a vocal advocate for Oscar, the opera. We knew she was coming to see it in Santa Fe. The Washington Post was doing an article on her and they interviewed me on her and how much she meant. Remember, we were premiering a month after the Supreme Court ruling, so it was all perfect timing. Some photos were taken at intermission with my now-husband and Justice Ginsburg and I just thought “We want to get married, if you don’t ask you won’t get an answer.” So I sent an email through her secretary and within a day I heard back from her personally telling me that if we come to Washington she would be honored to do it. So we planned it in six weeks. We got married in Georgetown at a place called Dumbarton House. Heidi Stober, a soprano in the cast (Ada Leverson) has a husband, Simon Pauly, who’s is quite a great photographer. That was their wedding gift to us: he flew in and took the photos for us.

PB: So it was a big wedding…

DD: It was awesome. I mean, the Secret Service made me nervous. Getting married made me nervous. I’ve never heard such a booming voice as when Justice Ginsburg got to the part that said “And now by the power vested in me by the Constitution of the United States of America….” It was amazing.

PB: I’m a little misty right now, so while I pull myself together, let’s talk about another interview you did for parterre box back in 1999…

DD: I’ve read it often. I just look back on it and say, “Oh my god, the youth, the conceited youth!” Comments I would never say now…

PB: George Shirley, the great American tenor, was your teacher. How is he doing?

DD: He’s doing great. He’s 80 years old and still teaches a few students at The University of Michigan. He still goes around and teaches master classes. He’ll never lose energy. It’s incredible. I just talked to him yesterday actually. He has more integrity in his little finger than most people do.

PB: Where does David Daniels go from here?

DD: I don’t know. I love teaching. I grew up with parents that are both teachers. I’m passionate about it. I do master classes wherever I sing, because I love to do it. So that’s a possibility. I don’t know. I’m still singing pretty well. I’m almost 50 and still doing it. And I still get the question “How long can a countertenor career go on?” Well, it’s been going on for 25 years now. I know myself well enough that when it’s time for me to make the choice of a new direction in my life I trust that I will make that decision and my voice will not make that decision for me.

DD: The other thing is: will companies continue to do baroque opera? At this point, it looks to me, that the slot that has been 18th-century opera is now being replaced by modern music. Modern music is the thing now. Look at all the companies doing new works. It’s everywhere.

PB: I’m still listening to Magda Olivero and Licia Albanese, who both died recently at 104 and 105 respectively. That’s modern music to me!

DD: I was an opera queen way before I was an opera singer.

PB: Who did you listen to growing up?

DD: Caballé and Corelli were my two singers.

PB: What did you learn from listening to their records?

DD: From Caballé, the legato line. I didn’t really learn much from Franco Corelli except “Wow, what a great voice”

PB: …and legs! How did you get into opera growing up?

DD: My parents. They were both opera singers. My mother was a soprano and my dad was a baritone, and they were both teachers. I grew up in the summers at the Brevard Music Center in the North Carolina mountains, so as a kid I heard Robert Merrill, Renata Scotto, Cornell MacNeil. As a kid you just don’t know what you’re hearing sometimes, but summer after summer, such great voices. They’d do concerts. You just soak it all in. You can’t help it, like a sponge. You’re not even aware of it. You’re not even aware of how lucky you are.

PB: What was your “diva moment”? Your “OMG I can’t believe I’m actually meeting so-and-so?”

DD: The one where I couldn’t speak was James McCracken actually. I was always a big fan of his—and he was so generous to me. That was amazing. And certainly when Martin Katz, my accompanist, friend and colleague played my audition for Columbia Artists Management back in 1992 or ‘93. Martin invited Marilyn Horne to my audition. So, as I’m in the middle of “Di tanti palpiti” [from Rossini’s Tancredi] the back door opens and in she walks. That was pretty amazing. But after I finished singing the Rossini—I’ll never forget this—she came up to the stage and introduced herself, “Hi, I’m Marilyn Horne!” I’m like “I know who you are…”


DD: So Martin has a list of my arias, and he asked her, “What would you like to hear him sing?” And she said “Well, something he has a chance to be hired for.” I’ll never forget it. That was awesome. And you know, she was right, I never sang Tancredi.

Photos: Simon Pauly (portrait); Ken Howard | The Santa Fe Opera (Oscar)

  • From Elliman’s and Hesketh Pearson’s biographies of Wilde, I have the impression that he never quite got over the shock of adolescence, never came to terms with his sex urge. He wrote poems about his “guilt” and “shame” for some unspecified deed or feeling in his teens, and his mother (the poetess Speranza) told him, sharply, that guilt was perfectly respectable but shame was not.

    He was, of course, a practicing bisexual, and he appears (sources debate it) to have acquired syphilis, so common among artists and everyone else in those days, from a woman in a house of ill fame. (Love using that phrase.)

    But look at the significant moments in his mature work: Salome is pre-pubescent at the beginning of the play, and it is the shock of first feeling the sex urge that crazes her, that inspires a need for satisfaction or revenge. Dorian Gray, similarly, has not (so far as we know) been sexually active before he utters his disastrous wish; it is the temptation to do whatever he likes and be untouched by it that destroys his soul.

    Wilde was enough of a believer (though he loved tweaking traditional believers for their mindless piety) to feel desperately guilty for his sexual needs; he wanted to be punished for it. He brought the insane lawsuit — and did not flee the countersuits — to lead the world into a grand sado-masochistic Scene with his abasement and repentance at the center of it. But things got out of control. The government was not entertained. The mob rioted and tore his house down. He became a pariah. His mother and wife died while he was in prison, of, well, whatever, but shame didn’t help. He had to go abroad because he couldn’t remain in England, and his name became a byword for infamy. This was not what he’d intended.

    Today, besides therapy for his guilt complex, he could find a perfectly decent dungeon somewhere and someone to whip him (actually, Paris had plenty of such establishments, per Proust) into a satisfying personal abasement without martyrdom. But martyrdom is what he got.

    • Pelleas

      I actually just finished the Ellman bio yesterday. He ventured that Wilde refused to flee countersuit because the life afterward--basically hiding in Europe--would be beneath his dignity, despite being easier. (He was also driven on by Douglas’ rages and accusations of cowardice.)

      I don’t know about him having a guilt complex, though--I think he would have--at least prior to prison--enjoyed having a much more dramatic sense of guilt over his actions than he actually did, for the dark glamour of it. I think that was behind his dalliance with Catholicism, as well as his “panthers.” He seemed to take a great pleasure in his transgressions, at least as an adult and after Ross more or less brought him out, sexually.

      I hope they do justice to him onstage.

  • Quanto Painy Fakor

    Sounds like a fascinating project. I will be very interested to see it and hope it wins an Oscar. The men in the photo with the creepy dude look particularly gay friendly.

  • phillyof

    Don’t miss the trailer for Oscar! I hope to see you all at The Academy of Music!

  • phillyof

    Let’s try again. Don’t miss the Oscar trailer! Hope to see you all at The Academy of Music!

  • kennedet

    Did anyone feel Marilyn Horne was being sarcastic?

    • I didn’t think she was sarcastic at all. She was being practical. Remember: Hardly any countertenors were before the public at that time.

      She had an interesting career searching for an appropriate fach in which she could earn a living. I heard her sing Wagner, Strauss, Massenet, a lot of Verdi and Carmen. She even got the Met to give her the only Meyerbeer staging they’ve done in the last century. She didn’t want to sing only Handel and Rossini because she didn’t think there was a living in it. No mezzo had ever done it before. But in the end, Handel and Rossini (and some Vivaldi) became her calling cards. Lots of singers make their careers mostly singing Handel and Rossini today, but they do so because Horne led the way, and the style revived, and the audience grew.

      So I think she was being down-to-earth, practical and inspiring, which is what Marilyn Horne tends to be.

      • The only Meyerbeer staging of the last century except for L’Africaine in 1900, 1901, 1907, 1923, 1924, 1925, 1926, 1927, 1928, 1929, 1930, 1931, 1933, and 1934; Le Prophet in 1918 and 1928; and Les Huguenots in 1900, 1901, 1902, 1903, 1905 1912, 1913, 1914, and 1915.

  • Quanto Painy Fakor

    • Quanto Painy Fakor

      Maybe someday they will try with tenor or a baritone as Oscar.

  • bronzino

    Thanks, RW, for taking the time to conduct the interview. We have been following DD ever since his astounding performance of Nerone at BAM so many decades ago now (do any parterrians remember the ringing, virile top note in his “ahi destino” from that performance? WOW!). Back then, he was decidely NOT interested in teaching (as a fledgling countertenor bent on improving our instrament, we asked back during those snows of yesteryear if he would consider students, and his reply was “Oh no, no, no--not ready for students yet!”), so it’s insightful to hear that he now is ready to pass on his knowledge to the next generation.

    RW (or other readers), we would love to know what specific changes have been made to the Oscar score @ Philly (vs Santa Fe)? For example, some reviewers rolled their eyes at the Walt Whitman in White business in Santa Fe. Any spoiler alerts/hints?? Or, anyone going to final dress/opening night who can report back on the alterations to the fabric?

    Final Philisophical Question for General Discussion: We are hearing a lot about the topicality of of the storyline in Oscar, even to the point that the subject matter is the overriding reason to see/hear the performance. What is the raison d’etre of a new opera in our time? Does an operatic creative team aim at the here and now, or is the aim ‘for the ages’ and ‘posterity’?

    • Indiana Loiterer III

      As to your last question: topicality is big these days in all the arts and has been these past two decades or so. It’s very difficult to get people to admit being interested in or knowledgeable about anything that isn’t absolutely up-to-the-minute. (Even Wilde’s 1890s is a big risk.) An operatic creative team can only do what such teams have done for ages--cope with the current situation, whatever it is, and try to find something operatic in it.

    • phillyof

      Bronzino ( and all ): Naturally, I asked about the revisions to the work post-Santa Fe, but Daniels was mum. We shall just have to wait until opening night, Feb 6th, to find out.

      • Nonsense. Everyone knows Daniels is a daddy.

    • Among opera composers, I don’t think anyone much consciously wrote “for the ages” until, maybe, the dodecaphonists, and even then I wonder if they were writing “for posterity” or simply for themselves, and audiences could take what they were writing or leave it.

      Maybe Wagner had some sense of his works being performed in decades and centuries to come, but I don’t get the feeling that was what primarily drove him; again, he was writing what he wanted to write. Whatever audience he envisioned, though, was the audience of his present--maybe in an idealized form, but not for “now and forever.”

      I would suggest that one important reason topicality is “big” in the arts (and in less artistic forms of entertainment) is that it’s a way of promoting the product. It’s not the easiest sell to make opera attractive to a younger audience because it’s old music, mostly performed in an old-fashioned way, to an audience a good deal older than the median of the population. So “topicality” is one way of trying to make opera seem a little less like a quaint dusty antique.

      • bronzino

        It’s the ‘M’ word, isn’t it? ‘Marketing’. Gasp.

        And yet.

        Can we not expect a consumer to be an intelligent, critical thinker, unswayed by ‘popular’ opinion, especially in the rather narrow, educated niche of ‘opera lover’ (even ‘young opera lover’)? Does opera have to be packaged as ‘cool’ and ‘accessible’ rather than multi-layered/complex and inviting of repeat viewing/listenings? Isn’t life-long exploration of a rich, old tradition of artistic expression a longer lasting ‘hook’ than a flash-of-today’s-news-headline enticement?

        • armerjacquino

          Isn’t life-long exploration of a rich, old tradition of artistic expression a longer lasting ‘hook’ than a flash-of-today’s-news-headline enticement?

          And today’s False Opposition Award goes to…

      • I’d say that the question of which composers were “writing for the ages” has more to do with their attitudes towards the past than to the future. If they had experience with a classicizing repertory system, where works from the past were handed down and kept around as part of a tradition, then the composers will think of themselves within that tradition and will harbor an awareness that their work will outlive them. Chaikovsky, for example, surely hoped his symphonies would become repertory staples -- why shouldn’t he have dared hope the same for his operas? By this standard, I’d speculate that Rameau possibly harbored more ambition of “writing for the ages” than Mozart did.

        • And, to avoid misunderstanding, I should perhaps have used a word like “canon” instead if “repertory”.

      • Krunoslav

        ‘So “topicality” is one way of trying to make opera seem a little less like a quaint dusty antique.’

        Here’s, like, another:


        • armerjacquino



        • Camille

          This is a test. Do not panic and do not turn off your television sets:

          Maybe it works without the v in this instance?

          • Grane

            I heard Marilyn Mulvey do this once. I think it doesn’t work without Victor Borge.

      • armerjacquino

        In my experience, most people in the arts strive towards topicality when mounting a classic work because we want the end product to communicate something to the audience which is more than ‘yes, this is like when I saw it before’.

        • And my experience of the “candle-lit reconstruction” type of Baroque opera production has been that they don’t communicate much at all, except maybe erudition.

          • Camille

            “Candle-lit reconstruction”.

            The rumor ran rapid wildfire for the longest time that it was Hyacinth Bucket’s wallpaper what done poor old Oscar in.

            • Well, I was thinking moer of Cadmus et Hermione, for example, which was less funny.

          • Chanterelle

            Yes, it helps to be able to SEE the production, which IME is difficult if you’re more than 20 feet away from a candlelit stage.

  • pasavant

    I will be in Florence from 14 April through 26 April. I cannot find anything on line about Opera or Music in Florence. Is there an Opera Company? Are they performing during my time there? Are there any other interesting music performances? Thanks for any help.

    • Camille has the answers:

      [If you go to “Festivals” you will find that Maggiio Musicale Fiorentino begins April 27.]

      • armerjacquino

        Giovanna Casolla and Luciana D’Intino alternating as Santuzza? Eva Mei as Violetta?

        ‘Firenze’ in this case seems to be a euphemism for ‘1993’.

        • la vociaccia

          Casolla sang Santuzza in Firenze last year as well. Here’s a recording:

          All things considered, for a 70 year old, she’s pretty damned good still

      • pasavant

        Thanks for the info. Looks like no opera or concerts during my stay in Florence. Oh well, plenty of pictures to look at.

    • Oops I posted in the wrong place that Jenufa will be on in Bologna. Not far away.

      • And Bologna’s a more relaxing city than Florence.

  • Jenufa will be on in Bologna.

  • almavivante

    What I would have told DD, if he still looks like the portrait at the top of this page: “You’ve lost weight! Bravo! Handsomer than ever!”

    What I would have asked DD: “Why did you shave your chest around the time you did the Met’s first revival of Rodelinda?”

    What I would have implored DD to do: “Please, please record that wonderful art song set to Walter de la Mare’s poem ‘King David,’ which I heard you sing once in recital.” [If any of the cher public know if he did record it at some point, pray tell!]

    • God, sometimes the aesthetics on here get under my skin. “You’ve lost weight!” is a compliment at once fraught and utterly banal.

      • (Signed Maury D, the crabby cub of Parterre.)

  • almavivante

    If someone told me I’d lost weight and was “handsomer than ever,” I’d be delighted. And if you find my comment banal, you are welcome to post something meaningful, which you have not yet accomplished.

    • Look, I’m sorry to snap at you in particular but people here have a lot of unexamined stuff about standards of attractiveness. It’s more often directed at women but it’s still annoying when it isn’t. Do you get that skinny is not a universally valued characteristic, and that it might be insulting to assume that it is?