Natalie Dessay: "opera is an art which has not been able to renew." Photo: Brigitte Lacombe licensed to Warner Classics.

Natalie Dessay: "opera is an art which has not been able to renew."

Jenna Simeonov

In an interview with Forum Opéra, star soprano Natalie Dessay made some comments that got our attention. Translated from French:

“I often felt a bit out of place, because I never considered myself a singer but rather a singing actress. In the world of opera, I have always been uncomfortable, a foreigner in fact. But I loved to do this job, but without ever losing awareness that it was an art of the past, a closed world, and I thought: but what reason can we have today to sing without microphone?!”

Looking the other way over the microphone bit (an odd detail to single out), there’s something slightly irksome about Dessay’s statement about feeling like a “foreigner”, “uncomfortable” in the world of opera. To be fair, she answers our immediate follow-up question - well, why did you sing opera, then? - with a fair explanation (“I loved to do this job”).

Yet Dessay is not one who is known for singing world premieres, which is why it’s an odd thing for her to say that opera is an “art of the past”. Certainly, the roles that made her famous, by folks like Mozart, Donizetti, Handel, and Strauss, are of the past. Yet with apparently little experience (if any at all) singing in brand new operas - in which there are plenty of roles for her voice type - it’s perhaps an uneducated thing to say that opera is of the past, and that for that reason she didn’t feel at home in the industry. One could argue that she could have tried harder to find out if new works really do help opera to evolve.

She continues:

“It is true that certain modern works may pass to posterity, such as those of Thomas Adès or John Adams, but they are extremely rare and do not invalidate the idea that opera is an art which has not been able to renew.”

Frankly, there are either examples of forward-looking operas, or there aren’t. It’s strange that Dessay dismisses the works of two of the great opera composers of the 20th and 21st centuries, as though their rarity makes them invalid. On top of the big names like Adams and Adès, a fair peruse of what’s happening in places like Minnesota Opera, Opera Philadelphia, Lyric Opera of Chicago, and Houston Grand Opera can easily dispel the “rare” myth.

It’s even more mysterious that Dessay, after her dismissive comments - which really only reflect her own anecdotal experience - she goes on to talk about how she suffers an embarrassment of riches in choosing the right Schubert lieder for her upcoming recital tour. We can’t help but ask: how is it that an opera about poor artists in love is something “of the past”, but song about a woman at a spinning wheel is not?

Readers, what say you? Is there truth in what Dessay says? Are her ideas simply communicated poorly? Or does she reveal a level of ignorance about the operatic industry?

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