Call me Pygmalion.
That is my code name, of course. My real name is Dr. Piggy. I am director of research and development for Designing Women (NYSE: DeWo), a firm that designs women. Three years ago, Peter Gelb, the incoming managing director of the Metropolitan Opera, asked me to create a diva who could bring new life and new subscribers to that venerable art. With a hand-picked team of geneticists, biophysicists, and overpaid music critics, I drew up plans for a creature of superhuman beauty and talent, capable of singing, dancing, acting, and chewing gum at the same time, and charged with an animal magnetism of 10,000 Gauss. We were about to build the prototype when Mr. Gelb called to cancel the order.
"Never mind," he said. "We found her."
Though the contract is still in litigation, I can see his point.
In the summer of 2005, the soprano scheduled to sing the role of Cleopatra in a new production of Handel's Giulio Cesare at the Glyndebourne Festival in Sussex, England, fell sick. Desperate, the management turned to a nobody: a 26-year-old of Dutch and Sri Lankan extraction, extracted from Australia at the age of 10, and raised in California. The youngest singer ever accepted into the Metropolitan Opera's training program, she'd made her Met debut as Barbarina, to good notices, at the age of 19. Her name was Danielle de Niese.
On opening night, she ceased to be a nobody. Audiences roared themselves hoarse. Critics could barely keep their flies buttoned. David McVicar's cheeky production—which transposed the action from the Roman Empire to the British and spiced Handel's arias with dance moves from Bollywood, Broadway, and MTV—seemed custom-cut for de Niese's outsized talents. In fact it was custom-cut for them, partly. When, in rehearsal, McVicar and his choreographer, Andrew George, saw what de Niese could do, they kept pushing the envelope: "Can you do this?" Invariably, she could.
Lip-syncing on MTV is a breeze; singing opera at full voice while dancing is not. Maintaining precise breath control can be agonizing ("My heart was beating in my throat," de Niese says), and one has to shuttle constantly between the tight diaphragm required for dancing and the loose one required for singing. (By the way, this little problem gave the biophysicists on our design team a real headache; in the end, we had to spring for two diaphragms.) To be sure, de Niese did most of the really aerobic stuff during her arias' ritornellos, or instrumental breaks. Even so, her feat was pretty stunning.
Those of us who missed it because we were busy designing the perfect diva will have another shot next month, when the same production is mounted by the Chicago Lyric Opera. In the meantime, we can watch the DVD (BBC/Opus Arte). And we can listen to her debut album, a recital of Handel arias released this week by Decca.
De Niese's backers believe she could bring a new generation to opera. I fully expect her to rope in several generations, including not only those who have reached puberty but those who are still watching cartoons. De Niese has the larger-than-life features of a Disney princess. Figuratively (by which I mean literally, with regard to her figure), she is a flesh-and-blood 'Toon, a regular Jessica Rabbit. She is built for the theater, her every eye roll and lip purse reading loud and clear even from the nosebleed section. Yet the camera loves her, too, a fact first discovered by producers in Los Angeles who made her host of a children's TV show when she was 12. (She won an Emmy four years later.) At a distance of 14 inches (the closest I got, on my honor), her eyes are so large as to be dizzying. Her mouth is constructed on a similarly queenly scale. When she sings or speaks her lips put on a show of their own, a bijoux ballet.
We tend to assume that the sort of opera most likely to attract new audiences is the sort written by Verdi or Puccini, in which characters behave in a relatively natural manner (e.g., singing continuously in long arcs of melody, often while dying). But it may turn out that older, more "artificial" forms, such as Handel's opera seria, are a better draw. The plots may be convoluted, but they move in quick bursts of recitative, between which one can kick back and enjoy the arias. These resemble modern pop songs in (A) offering a snapshot of emotion, (B) being in ABA form, and (C) lending themselves to MTV treatment. And (D) just as the American popular song tradition, from the Café Carlisle to American Idol, allows one to "put one's own spin on the standards" (in de Niese's words), so does the return of the A section give ample room for creative ornamentation, which not only colors the music emotionally but "gives the singer a chance to show off, which I think modern audiences can relate to." Since (E through H) Handel was probably, as Winton Dean remarks, "the greatest melodist in musical history" (think Messiah, then multiply by 23 oratorios, 50 operas, etc., etc.), you've got quite a songbook to work with.
Since I may have given the impression that my admiration for de Niese rests on extramusical grounds, let me use her new record as a chance to test that hypothesis.
Four of the nine characters de Niese impersonates are sorceresses (five if you count Cleopatra, who was so regarded by the Roman senate). Perhaps this should not surprise us, as Handel had a soft spot for sorceresses and gave them some of his best music. He seemed to sympathize with the enchantress's plight: She can snare any man she wants, but when her spell is broken, she loses him. (Sometimes she tires of him first, in which case, like Alcina, she turns him into a rock or a tree; as any woman will tell you, this is pretty low-grade magic, since most men turn to wood or stone after sex anyway.)