23 June 1999

parterre box talks to David Daniels

"I cannot trust myself to be objective about this wonderful singer. Even others less enamored than I with countertenors in general and this countertenor in particular did agree, however, that Daniels sang his pieces with sweet, unforced and vibrant tone, and that his musicianship is impeccable. What joy he takes in performance; what genuine FUN he finds in ‘Di tanti palpiti’!" That's my persona of La Cieca talking, so you can imagine how plain old James felt when he got the chance to meet and interview David Daniels. For months we played email tag, but finally we met at the Met National Auditions winners' concert, and we made a date for the next day. The Upper West Side cafe was nearly empty in midafternoon. David ordered an Eve Harringtonesque milkshake ("I like it thick!") and I slurped up a fruit and yogurt blender thing ("Eeew! Don't tell me you're ordering something healthy!") And we talked.

James Jorden: Do you consider yourself an opera queen?

David Daniels: I was. Now I'm doing it, so it's hard to be a fan of other singers - I know that sounds bad, but other singers would know what I'm talking about. When I was in college, yes, I was an opera queen. There was Cincinnati opera in the summer, which was a lot of Barbara Daniels. I heard Martina Arroyo sing Turandot there, and one of the best performances I've ever seen: Romeo and Juliette, with Ricky Leech and Faith Esham. They were fantastic. My favorite singers when I was growing up were Corelli and Montserrat, and then I found that concert they did together on CD, I was in heaven! I don't know that any one person influenced me, really, but rather the fact that I grew up around performing.

JJ: You still go to the opera a lot?

DD: Oh, yes, when I get the chance. I mean, I don't live in a city like New York where there's opera every night, plus of course I'm home listening to myself! When I was in Munich earlier this season, I went to Xerxes, Giulio Cesare, Ariadne - Susan Graham was fab in that! I like somebody who's going to give me something dramatically and with the voice -- more than just a beautiful sound. Sue does that and she has a beautiful sound too. Lately the people I've been around are Early Music people. Like Lorraine [Hunt]: she's fantastic, an intense, wonderful performer.

JJ: Who else do you listen to?

DD: I listen to myself a lot. No, wait, I mean, not for pleasure, but I do listen to performance tapes a lot, to learn about what I like, what I don't like, what choices I made artistically. People send me tapes of practically everything I do.

JJ: How do you feel about people taping you?

DD: I think it's great. When I was in college I taped everything I went to. I have this concert of Scotto in Brevard, North Carolina in 1986. No one else has that, and she was fabulous. I remember her Otello with Vickers on TV, but I was really young, so I didn't know what I was hearing.

JJ: On the internet, this vicious queen compared your rapport with the audience to Scotto's , you know, milking the applause.

DD: I'm pretty down-to-earth, I think. But if Scotto's a little over the top, what's wrong with that? That's why the queens scream their guts out! And if I have "presence," whatever that is, I think that's good too.

JJ: Until you fall to both knees when you bow, I think you're okay.

DD: At my Met debut, I thought I would kiss the floor - and then go hug Risë Stevens.

JJ: So that's what it's like, being a star?

DD: I've been told that is what I am. I don't know it's the Southern Protestant "don't feel too good about yourself" bullshit, but it's hard to believe I'm a star. What I do is good, and I enjoy doing it, when I'm feeling well. When I'm under the weather, it's the worst experience of my life. There's much more pressure now. My first Nerone in 1994 was a great experience. I had so much fun, and I would think, "Shit, do we really have to wait six days before we do this again?" And now, I get so uptight singing that role, now that I know how difficult it is. It's so high and so dramatic. And, you know, he just never stops. You get a little rest in the second act, but the first and third acts, it's just nuts. He sings far more than Poppea, plus he's always ranting. But back then, I didn't know all that. I just knew I had something different to offer.

JJ: Different?

DD: My sound, until recently, was the only countertenor that appealed to mainstream operagoers - the people who say, "Ugh, countertenors." But in a sense, that's unfair. Where would I be with all the countertenors who came before? As it happens, this sound, my natural sound, is more accessible to people who go to Traviata. When I started out, my sound was more - shall we say - Troyanosesque. I sang baroque music like someone who usually sang Azucena. Working with singers like Lorraine and Drew, listening to other singers on CD, I refined it a bit, took out the glottal attacks and the scoops.

JJ: Will you tell the Origin of David story again?

DD: I was a second-year Masters' student at the University of Michigan, studying with George Shirley. Before then I was with Gary Kendall, who is now at Manhattan School of Music, but I wanted to work with a tenor. It just never happened for me as a tenor: everything above F would split and crack and flip. But it wasn't a baritone,the timbre was wrong. I wondered, though, and I tested the waters. Like, I took this tape in to George Shirley of me singing "Pace, pace" at a party, saying it was a friend. He looked right at me, and said, "That's you, isn't it?" I remember the day that I said, enough is enough. Lorna Haywood was teaching song lit that semester, because Martin Katz was on sabbatical - which is why I took it that semester, because I was embarassed for him to hear me. I sang some Elgar song, and I cracked and I just stopped singing and closed my music and sat down, shaking. I thought, I just can't do this any more. Now, George had worked with me a bit trying to bring the high voice down into the tenor range, trying to make it blend, but the voices were totally different. So I brought in some countertenor repertoire, a Semele aria and "Che faro." At the end, George leaned back and laughed and said, "That's your voice. Why would you want to sing any other way?" And the weight of the world was off my shoulders. I made a demo tape, which Lorna sent to LA - she had just done Lady Billows there, and knew they planned Midsummer Night's Dream the next year. And they offered me to cover Jeffrey Gall: I learned the part in two weeks! Two days after my Masters' recital I was in LA. And then, well, then I sent out tapes, trying to get management, and all the doors were closed. They wouldn't even listen! Now, those same people would represent me in a second, because I'm David Daniels - but the singing is the same. That word "countertenor" used to scare management away. Frankly, I have changed that. Now it's not quite so bad.

JJ: The voice is more accessible, plus there's the personality onstage. Sex appeal.

DD: I'll have to take your word for that. I am absolutely clueless on that subject. One thing that I have noticed: even though I've never been JoJo the Dogfaced Boy, I'm much more attractive to people now than I was five years ago. That's sort of sickening.

JJ: I mentioned to a couple of people that I'm interviewing you, and they asked for a lock of your chest hair.

DD: Oh, stop! Not that I'd miss it. That's flattering, and I won't say I mind getting the attention, but it's just so typical. When someone is successful and in the public eye, he can look like - well, I won't name names - but he's still perceived as attractive.

{short description of image}JJ: It's been about three months since I saw you, and you look trimmer.

DD: I hired a personal trainer a couple of months ago. He's very unattractive and straight. I'm not an idiot.

JJ: Is there a connection between working out and how your singing connects with your body/

DD: I think so. Singing is athletic. I don't sing with my body as much as I want to eventually. I'm not connected head to toe - not like Lorraine. I am totally in awe of her. I get to sing with her this summer in

San Francisco: Nerone to her first Ottavia. Roxana Dunose is the Poppea. In this production I make my first entrance in boxer shorts - that's the main reason for the trainer.

JJ: Oh, man, I'm there! So, besides the Poppea, what's coming up?

DD: Partenope at

Glimmerglass this summer, then in the fall, I'm touring with Nick McGegan doing the Scarlatti canatas - sort of a promotional tour. Berkley, Town Hall here in New York, Ann Arbor, Frankfurt, Vienna and London. But the big news is Rinaldo at the Munich Staatsoper in 2000, which is really exciting. I had a nice success in Poppea, so they asked me what I wanted to do. I asked for Rinaldo, and they said okay. That had never happened to me before.

JJ: Do you see yourself as a gay icon?

DD: No, not remotely!

JJ: People say that. . .

DD: You do, maybe, but nobody else!

JJ: Among a certain group of opera queens, the ones your age, who are just coming into opera, you are a wonderful one-of-a-kind thing.

DD: Well. That's nice. I hope I can be around for a while.

JJ: We all do. Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

DD: I'd like to record a lot more, especially complete operas. I'd like to expand my recital repertoire, because I love singing recitals, and that's an opportunity to sing 19th and 20th century music, Poulenc and things like that. I want to sing Orfeo, though I'm not scheduled yet.

JJ: Is that your dream part?

DD: No. My real dream is Cesare. We're talking about that right now, but nothing I can discuss at the moment.

JJ: Do you find that part on the low side?

DD: At baroque pitch, maybe a little. At modern pitch, it's perfect. I recorded three of Cesare's arias on my Handel disc, and two Sestos. That's out in September, on Virgin Classics. I have no idea if it will sell. People have been asking for a CD for a couple of years. I've just signed on with [publicist] Edgar Vincent, and the CDs are the main reason: I want to make sure they're promoted correctly.

JJ: That'll be out before your Met debut, so you could maybe sign records in the Met gift shop.

DD: I'm afraid to do something like that. What if nobody comes in? There's this horror that I'll be sitting there working a crossword puzzle, or they'll bring in homeless people. . . Anyway, I was recording in London on alternate days with Ruth Ann Swenson, and finally our sessions overlapped and I met her. I liked her a lot. She could sing Cleopatra, couldn't she? She was recording "Se pieta" and some other Handel. The role was written for Cuzzoni, who created Asteria in Tamerlano.

JJ: I'm impressed.

DD: Now let's hope people think I know everything.

JJ: The first Cesare was. . .

DD: Senesino.

JJ: He had a fairly limited range. . .

DD: Like C to D.

JJ: The mezzos who sing it complain about the short range.

DD: That's why it's better for a countertenor, unless you put everything up a perfect fourth, like Ann Murray. But she's great in the part! The arias I sang for the disc felt very right; the producer called yesterday and said his favorite was the "Al lampo, all'armi" which is really low, with those B-flats in the runs. . .

JJ: How do you feel about chest voice?

DD: I use it occasionally, as an effect, but I don't like it a lot. If it's really low and on an open vowel, I'll cover a bit so it's not in bad taste.

JJ: That's about what Deborah Voigt said. She only uses full chest on low A-flat.

DD: She'll have to use it in Salome, too: there's a low G-flat there.

JJ: Maybe sometime you and La Deb can sing together, like

Dame Gwyneth Jones and Jochen Kowalski.

DD: You know, Gwyneth was a huge help to me. I did a soprano role in Die Frau ohne Schatten in San Francisco, the Huter der Schwelle des Tempels. For once they used me instead of the "oder Sopran." I'll never do it again. . . three high A's over a Strauss orchestra! But I'll never forget the day of orchestra rehearsal, I sat down next to her, trying to act totally calm, because I just adore her. And she looked up at me, obviously thinking, "What the hell is he singing in this opera?" So my music started, and the adrenalin was going, and I just nailed the A's! And from that moment, she was on my side. She took my CV back to Europe with her, sent my tapes all over. She is the sole reason I got to sing with Harnoncourt in Vienna and Salzburg. The last time she was in New York for Turandot, she left a message on my voicemail saying, "I just want you to know that I'm telling everyone I'm David Daniels' biggest fan!" A friend of mine in San Francisco is her biggest fan, and he gave her as a gift this toy axe thatrunson batteries and spurts plastic blood. She went around backstage in San Francisco "attacking' everyone with it. She's a real star, one of the last.

JJ: Except for you. You're the new diva. Or I should say "divo."

DD: I think that for "opera queens," it's a new experience: this soprano sound connected to a masculine guy - it's different.

JJ: Everybody expects a countertenor to be like a high coloratura - I mean, all florid singing.

DD: Except the sympathetic ones: Arsamene, Tolomeo. . .

JJ: I personally like best from you the lyric singing. A beautifully sung line is sometimes more difficult than fioratura.

DD: You have to do both, because the music calls for it. Fast notes don't come naturally to me, not like they do to Derek Lee Ragin or Jeffrey Gall or Drew Minter. Drew wins the trill contest, but some days mine are pretty good. The tessitura matters; it's hard to trill up high. And of course, the style matters too. I wouldn't add much, if any, ornamentation to Orfeo, because that's not who he is: he's about simplicity and directness. I certainly wouldn't sing that "Addio miei sospiri" because it's not even in the castrato version - it's an aria for tenor.

JJ: So what do you sing when you're goofing around? Do you still sing soprano arias?

DD: No, I do it for a career now. I can be just as campy as the next person, but when I'm not rehearsing or performing, I just don't sing. I play basketball. Back when I was a tenor, I sang soprano arias all the time around the house, never in the tenor register. Even when I was kid and my voice changed, I sang soprano. Both my parents are voice teachers, you know, and my mother used to say, "Be careful, that's going to hurt the other voice. . ." [he listens to the Muzak for a moment, and exclaims:] "Ombra mai fu!" That's my aria! In the Martin Katz version, with full orchestra and modern vibrato. In this arrangement, it sounds like "My Own True Love." That aria - you know, that was my only complaint with the Tucker Gala. That was a huge an honor, and great exposure, and all that money! I was able to get out of debt at last! But they drove me nuts about the arias. I wanted to sing "Scherza, infida" from Ariodante, the greatest of all Handel arias, and "Ah dispetto," the big bravura aria from Tamerlano. But the Tucker people were afraid the audience would find unfamiliar repertoire boring and that the TV audience might turn it off. It all worked out okay, but I wanted to show mainstream America that there's more to Handel than "Ombra mai fu" and Messiah.

JJ: You pulled it off though. I remember you told me at the time you were a little tired.

DD: No, I wasn't. I was very tired, and I was not happy with how I sounded that night. When people tell me they saw that program, I cringe. I had the opening of Xerxes the night before, and I think I warmed up too much - we all do that. It's hard to trust sometimes.

JJ: But even when you're not at your best, it's still a pretty high level. Consistent.

DD: I hope so. Lately I've just been so busy. This is the hardest month of my career.

JJ: I'm amazed you found the time to do this interview, frankly.

DD: I started the month in St. Louis with an orchestra concert, then flew out to Berkley to sing Thomas Arne's masque Alfred - that's a fun piece, sort of a mix of Handel and Gilbert and Sullivan. Plus we did a Handel piece called Ode on the Birthday of Queen Anne - I was in all but one of the numbers in that, so it was a lot of work. And it was stressful, because Nick McGegan was quarantined in Scotland with adult chicken pox, so he missed three of the concerts. Fortunately, the organist Anthony Newman was able to fill in for him. Then we recorded the Arne for four days out at Skywalker Studios, and then we rehearsed Saul for a couple of days, flew out to New York, rehearsed another day, performed Saul, rehearsed Scarlatti cantatas, recorded Scarlatti cantatas for four days up at SUNY purchase. And you know that Scarlatti is like learning modern music, because nothing makes sense: the cadences are never what you think they'll be, and the harmonies are strange. The producer decided there wasn't enough music for a CD, so I had to learn another cantata during the week we were doing Saul, so I was just insane.

JJ: You must be a quick study.

DD: Very quick, which is good and bad, because sometimes I put off learning music until the last minute.

JJ: Now, a few months ago, you were outed. . .

DD: Outed myself, actually. . .

JJ: In the New Yorker, very tastefully. . .

DD: Just as you're going to do, right?

JJ: I guess what I want to ask, are you worried pressure to be a role model, an ideal fag? Like Ellen, I mean.

DD: Opera and television are such different venues. And I'm hardly the first:

Brian Asawa has been out for a long time. Anyway, all I can be is myself. I'm real, you know that.

JJ: Sometimes, though, artists feel this pressure to be a symbol. Like Leontyne Price had to be a great African-American performer. Or Tony Kushner for queers.

DD: Michael Feinstein, he's really political. . .

JJ: You only say that because you're doing that duets album with him.

DD: "David Sings Gershwin." Can you imagine? Seriously, what I think you're getting at is that one day I may be at a point, so well known, where I can be some sort of role model . I don't think that's going to happen. Not that I don't want to be famous: the first time they ask me to be on

Guiding Light, I'm there in a second. I love that show. Did you see CBS Sunday Morning where they took me to the set? I met the casting lady, and I call her sometimes when they do something really stupid on the show - like that story where Reva's been cloned. Please!

JJ: What else do you do for fun?

DD: I'm a sports nut. I play basketball still, every time I'm home. I watch basketball on television constantly. Baseball, football..

JJ: Butch!

DD: I get so much shit about that from my gay friends, but I don't do it to be butch. I love it. My brother and I played basketball as long as I remember, and North Carolina is a huge sports state, basketball especially. I love sports. It drives my boyfriend nuts. Every game, he says, is a really important game. "No, honey, but this is a really really important game." I am as passionate about sports, especially basketball, as I am about opera. When I sang Poppea down in Miami, the CEO of Ryder Truck, who's on the board of the opera, got me seats on the court for the Miami Heat. Of course I'm going to take advantage of that. I sat three chairs away from Sylvester Stallone. (He's a little guy.) I've been invited to the US Open. I work it. If I'm famous, that's the nice part about it. But you've got to work it.

JJ: Now another thing . . .

DD: You can't dismiss the sports thing, pretend I didn't talk about that. It's really huge with me. The New Yorker and CBS Sunday Morning didn't talk about the sports, and it kind of pissed me off. For me it's not a pose, or a way to act butch. I genuinely love it. If I stopped singing, I'd like to be a basketball referee, or maybe a sports announcer. John, my partner, will sit with me and I'm describing the game just ahead of the announcer: describing the play or whatever. The president of the University of Michigan asked if I would sing the national anthem at a football game. Think of it: 106,000 people in a stadium up in Michigan, listening to a countertenor. Can you imagine?