Artist In-Depth: Natalie Dessay

    Natalie Dessay is certainly one of the most important singers of the last several decades. While her voice does not appeal to all and her views about what opera is and should be are controversial, she has been an A-list singer for nearly two decades now due to her extraordinarily agile voice and her artistry, both within the song and on-stage.

    Born Nathalie Dessaix in 1965, as a child she knew she wanted to be on stage performing, but initially her desire was to be a dancer. As she felt she lacked sufficient talent, she next chose to pursue acting -- and indeed, dropped the 'h' from her first name in honor of actress Natalie Wood who she greatly admired.

    To be sure, acting is a difficult profession to break into as well -- one needs talent and more than a little luck to make it big. Just such a break occurred, though not in the way anticipated, when at the age of 18 she needed to sing for a role she was rehearsing. Her vocal talent was obvious to everyone and she was encouraged to pursue a singing career. Despite a relatively late start on this career path, where she didn't enroll in a conservatory until she was 23 or so, her work ethic led allowed her to learn quickly the skills and techniques that would serve her well.

    It's easy to forget now, with her voice on the decline and her skills as an actress remarked upon at least as much as her vocal talents, that -- especially early on -- she possessed a stunning, world-class voice ... albeit a bit unconventional.

    In this, the earliest clip of her known to me, you can witness the extraordinary freshness and loveliness of a young singer just beginning to bloom.

    The hallmarks of her voice are there even at such an early stage -- laser focused timbre that has the oddest combination of clean transparency and a nasal overtone; notes that seem to both cut through and float above the chorus and orchestra.

    Another early clip shows her abilities in alt, going up to a (by my ears) F6

    This video features at the end an early example of her trill, which is a work in progress at this stage. Indeed, the most interesting thing about these early videos is comparing this version of Ms. Dessay to the one found just 3 or 4 years later ... but I digress.

    Her "big break" as such came as Olympia in a 1992 production of Les Contes d'Hoffmann produced by Roman Polanski. Unfortunately I've not been able to find a complete video, nor even one with anything approaching good audio, but there is this:

    Probably the less said about this production the better, and it was as a whole received as poorly as one might expect from a mise-en-scene such as this. Regardless, her high notes, her ringing tone, and her early acting skills drew rave reviews and she was on her way up.

    Another 1992 clip showing her growing technique and, notably, her first foray into a foreign language, from Mozart's "Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail"

    That sequence at 1:16 with the 3 stacatti notes she would not have been able to handle so adroitly just a few years before, with the seamless transition to pianissimo as each note is taken.

    At this point her career is just beginning to take off. Her vocal agility, extremely high tessitura, improving technique, and signs of becoming someone who could act as well as sing were drawing attention and she became a hot commodity.

    Next: the early stages of a world career.

    As we enter 1995, the 30 year old Natalie Dessay is on the brink of stardom. This is due largely to her hard work in two areas: Technique / Craftsmanship and Stagecraft / Performance.

    The Technician

    Ms. Dessay made huge strides in the mid 90s on her technique. Witness a lovely, delicately floated legato line in Bellini's Oh! Quante Volte

    It's worth comparing her earlier Durch Zärtlichkeit und Schmeicheln from the earlier post to one just a couple years later:

    While there was nothing at all wrong with the earlier version, her growing confidence and skill creates a sweeter yet more complex rendition here.

    In the Fruhlingsstimmen Waltz, Ms. Dessay puts on a clinic on the art of the trill. The trills at 4:52 and 5:57 are, in my opinion, the best since Joan Sutherland's prime, and the technical skill for the trill at 8:14 with a crescendo to dimenuendo is something to behold. Oh and by the way, there's an Ab6 at 6:51. And roughly another dozen trills of surpassing sweetness. Really a remarkable performance.

    A flawless performance of Grossmachtige Prinzessin. In a superlative performance, 9:50 onwards is especially noteworthy for the lovely trills, the delicate and gorgeous high notes, and the moving interpretation.

    Perhaps the highlight of this period, and the one video I'd recommend everyone watch (particularly Ms. Dessay's detractors) is her performance of Lakmé's Bell Aria.

    The first 1:30 is astonishing for the sheer control she has over her instrument, playing with dynamics in a way that few others could manage.

    Next, I'll concentrate on her growing skill and confidence as a stage performer during this same period.

    The Performer

    The mid 90s also saw Ms. Dessay using her growing confidence and skill to blossom as a performer, both with regards to her physical acting ability and with an intense and insightful musicality.

    Our first highlight is from a 1994 production of Alcina at the Chicago Lyric, featuring Renee Fleming as Alcina and Natalie Dessay as Morgana.

    The sparkling coloratura is to be expected, but note how she is fully invested in her character in a way that park'n'barkers simply can't replicate. The notion of Montserrat Caballe kissing another woman full on the lips, to name one example, is unthinkable. And the ornamentals are as lovely as they are impressive (to wit: 3:45 - 3:55). But what may be more impressive is an anecdote Ms. Fleming relates in her book The Inner Voice, which roughly paraphrased is that she was astonished that every night Natalie would come up with original and brilliant ornamentals spontaneously and asked her how she did it, to which Natalie modestly replied "Oh, I don't like to think about what I did yesterday".

    One of her signature roles, of course, is that of Olympia. Ms. Dessay has said in interviews that she loves comedy and prefers it to tragedy, and her flair for comedic has been served well by this role in its many incarnations.

    Poor audio quality aside, her movements and timing make this hilarious even beyond the staging (for comparison purposes, one can find Desiree Rancatore in this same production and see how flat this can feel)

    As this is one of her most well known and highly regarded roles, I'll post two more versions to show her versatility. This one is a favorite of many, and if you don't laugh out loud at least a couple of times before Ms. Dessay even sings a single note, I'll eat my hat (note: I do not currently own a hat)

    I'll be honest and say that this version is far from my favorite, I think she plays it a bit safe here. It's still worth watching to see how the rest of the cast is doing funny things, while she's actually being funny. It's a significant difference and is why she is so magnetic on stage; Rudolf Bing once said about Maria Callas that the drama was all in her face, even while others were singing, that "[Bjorling] didn't know what he was singing, but she knew".

    Perhaps my favorite version is her most controversial -- unorthodox pacing, unorthodox staging, but a completely committed and convincing performance of an autistic girl whose only connection to the outside world is through song.

    And some lovely touches in the singing. Love the falling chromatic scale at 4:26. And the Ab6 at the end! She makes it sound like that's how the aria is *supposed* to end, not that it's there to show off.

    She made her Met debut in this period, as the Fiakermilli in Arabella.

    Hardly needs to sing at all -- she can tell a story through just her eyes more effectively than most can with their entire repertoire of notes (a good thing too as the audio quality for this clip is abysmal).

    As we enter the late 90s, Ms. Dessay is at the height of her powers vocally and is a powerful and convincing presence on stage. If there is a negative to her career at this stage, it is that she primarily has been playing smaller parts and hasn't been the star performer. This is partly due to the relative lack of lead roles for a lyric coloratura, and partly by design -- as yet she has not felt comfortable enough with her command of Italian or her bel canto technique to dive into the roles that Donizetti and Bellini have to offer. Ever the indefatigable worker, that is soon to change.

    Astute observers may have noticed that in this and the last post, I left out what was perhaps her most performed role from the mid 90s. This is intentional as it is relevant to a later discussion. Stay tuned

    Entering the late 90s, Ms. Dessay is at her peak vocally and theatrically.

    It's a pretty poor interview due to an interviewer who clearly doesn't know much about her or opera, but there are a couple items of note
    - She clearly values the theatrical and acting portion of opera above the singing. Not that the singing is unimportant -- she says in a book interview from Life in Opera that although she considers acting to be 70% of the job and singing 30%, that the 30% is absolutely essential -- but that it serves a larger purpose, that of telling a story convincingly. This was a rather controversial thing to say, as the prevailing thought was that opera was all about the voice. The era of Pavarotti and Sutherland still lingered in the memory, and they certainly had gorgeous voices but weren't much in the way of acting.
    - She mentions that she's learning Lulu! This obviously never came to pass. It's interesting to speculate what such an endeavor might have been like. We have a concert recital from over a decade later but her voice is not what it was, and obviously the acting -- her favorite part of performing -- is rather irrelevant in this kind of setting.

    Extremely poor audio quality aside, it seems an interesting effort but maybe not a good fit.

    In any event, the second half of the 90s is a rewarding time, as Ms. Dessay takes on many roles that will be associated with her for the rest of her career.

    I believe (though am not certain) that this is her first Zerbinetta, in possibly 1997. Fantastic performance and the ovation is well-earned.

    And I believe this is her first Amina, from 1999. The ornamentals are interesting, though become perhaps a bit self-indulgent.

    And one of my all time favorite performances and dvds is her Eurydice in Orphee aux Enfers, where she starred with her husband in a Laurent Pelly production. Interestingly, I've read from multiple sources that she really did not want to do this role and Mr. Pelly had to work hard to convince her. Perhaps because her status as a leading lady was just becoming established, and she didn't want to diminish her stature by appearing in a "mere" operetta? Whatever the reason, Mr. Pelly was correct as this is an outstanding role and a dvd that gets my highest recommendation. Some clips:

    For our younger OL members, parental guidance is suggested for the above clip as it is a bit racy.

    Really great role to showcase her gift for physical comedy. That look on her face at 4:34 never fails to make me laugh.

    She also gets the chance to bust out some impressive singing while showing off those sexy gams

    And the future seemed even brighter. At the turn of the millenium, Ms. Dessay is preparing to debut Manon, the French version of Lucia, Aminta in Die schweigsame Frau, and Constanze ... but things won't go quite as expected.

    There's a phrase -- or perhaps admonition is a better term -- that comes up in opera circles fairly often that goes "never sing on your capital". I've read it in Renee Fleming's book and a Callas biography, among others, and although a bit of a mixed metaphor it serves as a caution to singers not to overextend themselves. By nature and training, a voice becomes suited to a particular rep and singing those roles is, if not necessarily easy, more or less natural and vocally low stress. By singing outside your rep, the voice can become strained and possibly damaged.

    Ms. Dessay has a very light lyric coloratura voice, but some very satisfying roles (either personally or financially) are in slightly heavier reps.

    Constanze is more suited for a heavier dramatic coloratura voice and while Dessay's version is lovely, it sounds like she's really pushing here and singing at her absolute limits.

    The Queen of the Night is another role that is traditionally sung by a dramatic coloratura, as the role requires a very forceful intensity. The high modern tuning here only adds to the vocal demands.

    It's my pet theory, substantiated nowhere except my own imagination, that forays into these heavier roles resulted in the vocal crisis Ms. Dessay faced in 2001. Having noticed some trouble singing, she went in for a checkup and found that she had a nodule on a vocal cord. Of course, this is probably the worst news a singer can get -- your entire livelihood depends on the health of two tiny strips of mucus membrane in the throat and any change to them is bad news. Ms. Dessay made the choice to have surgery to remove the cyst. 9 months passed before she began to sing again. Here we see her in a late 2002 performance in Lucie de Lammermoor

    Certainly intense from an acting standpoint -- she doesn't even notice her "wardrobe malfunction". The trademark agility is still there. But perhaps a bit more nasal in tone than before?

    And from early 2003, one of my favorite renditions of Grossmachtige Prinzessin

    To my ears, she sounds completely recovered, with trills as lovely as in the 90s.

    Unfortunately, disaster was to strike twice as she again began to experience difficulties and found that she had another growth, this time a polyp on the other vocal cord. Ms. Dessay was very public and open about her problems, even going so far as to have the surgery documented on video.

    The video is in French sans subs but one can clearly see the concern on her face, not knowing if her career has come to a premature end. (Incidentally, I love the ringtone we hear at 6:29 )
    Perhaps someone with better French than me can translate the voiceover at 8:45 -- my attempt:
    "After the operation, Natalie retreats to a hotel on the coast, staying there without talking ... she can cry, but in silence"

    In any event, her being so public about the surgery was rather extraordinary; she has said that this happens to many singers but no one talks about it due to a perception of it being the singer's fault (i.e., bad technique) and seen as bad for their career.

    There would follow another lengthy recuperation period and an interesting period from the mid 2000s to the present, which will be covered next.


    After her second surgery and an extended recovery time, Ms. Dessay approached opera with a different attitude -- perhaps from a new awareness of the limited time an opera singer's career can be, perhaps due to an eagerness to try new roles, perhaps due to complete confidence in her technical and artistic ability ... or perhaps a bit of all three.

    2005 saw her recovering from surgery for the majority of the year, with a notable foray into Hayden's oratorio "The Creation" toward the latter part of the year.

    It seems to me she's singing a bit cautiously here, but that may be my own expectation coloring my judgement. In any event, she shows straight away that she's interested in trying new material that she hasn't previously sung.

    In 2006 she took on a couple new roles, including her first (and only) performance as Pamina in a rather oddball production for the Santa Fe Opera with recitative in English:

    At this time she was ready to venture into her first performance of Lucia; while she had sung the French version previously, Lucia adds a special challenge in Regnava nel Silenzio

    So, her voice has taken on a bit more nasal sheen than from before the surgeries and if one is to be entirely honest, from a purely vocal standpoint it is no longer a top tier voice. But the technique, the lovely floated notes, the interpretation, the agility -- all are still there in spades, and audiences responded to her not just as a singer, but as an artist.

    She also made an appearance at the Met in 2006 for the Volpe Gala and by most accounts stole the show

    The 2006 Lucia in Paris was basically a warmup for what awaited her in 2007: she was to open the Met's season in Lucia, including a simulcast in Times Square.

    It's well worth watching all 4 parts of the mad scene (each successive part available under the 'Video Responses' category on the Youtube page)
    Natalie in this role in this production is, for me, the definitive Lucia, with an interpretation and commitment to the role that I've never seen equaled. I'd also say this is Ms. Dessay's signature role and audiences agreed, with demand for performances in San Francisco and all across Europe, all of which received rave reviews.

    As part of the publicity for the Met Lucia, Ms. Dessay did an interview with Charlie Rose that become rather controversial. It can be seen here: http://www.charlierose.com/view/interview/8730
    For the opera purists -- those who say that the voice is the first and only consideration -- her comments seemed disparaging and dismissive of the majesty of opera and insulting to one of its legends in Joan Sutherland. I find the interview fascinating as her intellect and attention to the art of opera in toto are both obvious and formidable.

    Ms. Dessay continued her bel canto endeavors with a turn as Marie in a hugely acclaimed Laurent Pelly 2007-2008 production of La Fille du Regiment

    This production lets her really show off her physical comedy chops, and if you don't laugh out loud at this clip there's something wrong with you

    2009 was a fairly typical year for Ms. Dessay, split between recitals and operas.
    A lovely performance of Mozart's Great Mass:
    And a more controversial performance in La Sonnambula. This production drew a lot of criticism for a confusing interpretation that sought to update the opera by making it about a troupe rehearsing La Sonnambula. There were rumors that Ms. Dessay had a significant hand in developing the production which led to criticism directed towards her as well as Mary Zimmerman, the stage director / producer.
    Much of the criticism is warranted, but there are still lovely moments:

    So as the latter stages of her career begin to loom, Ms. Dessay starts to explore a wider repertoire -- both in vocal parts and in acting demands. Coloratura roles tend to fit into a couple stereotypical roles -- the mad woman, or the ingenue -- just comes with the territory. One advantage to being a world famous singer is you are at liberty to try different roles that singers without a similar reputation can not.

    She starred with her husband, baritone Laurent Naori, in a well-received production of Pelleas et Melisande

    In 2011 she performed her first Violetta, which received rather mixed reviews. Truth be told, it is perhaps not an ideal fit for her voice, and the moreso at this point in her career. However, from an acting standpoint it is a most rewarding role indeed and one can see why Ms. Dessay would be drawn to such a rich character.

    She also made her debut as Cleopatra, another role she had long wanted to sing, in a Laurent Pelly production of Giulio Cesare

    But it is her ventures outside of opera that gives perhaps a clue of what life may bring for Ms. Dessay when she leaves the opera stage.
    (sadly, a version with much better audio is no longer available on Youtube)

    From what I understand, this is from a one-woman show where she sang the works of Michel Legrand. The music, being of the pop / showtune variety, clearly presents no great challenge for her; instead, she's obviously having fun just being on stage in a different format than she's accustomed to.

    She has also acted in a stage play in France, playing an opera singer who has sung the Queen of the Night one too many times, which may have struck close to home for Ms. Dessay. Sadly, I've not been able to find any reviews of her performance.
    [edit] A fellow Natalie fan, Alix, has informed me that Ms. Dessay had to bow out of the play; hence the lack of reviews.

    So what does the future bring for Ms. Dessay? A Violetta in New York in 2011, a Cleopatra in New York in 2012, a Tales of Hoffman singing all the 'villainess' roles, I Puritani in New York in 2013/14. And after that? A recent interview (in French) may shed some light; in it, she hints that she is bored with opera and will take a hiatus in 2014; whether temporary or permanent is left unanswered. But given that acting is her first love, I'd not be surprised to see Ms. Dessay try her hand at acting and leave the singing to recitals or guest appearances.

    But here is a bit on her discography, courtesy of Schigolch:


    Operas (and Oratorios)

    Other stuff



    Adolphe Adam
    Néméa - Si j'étais Roi

    Vicenzo Bellini
    Amina - La Sonnambula

    Georges Bizet
    Bettina - Don Procopio

    Benjamin Britten
    Tytania - A Midsummer Night's Dream

    Emmanuel Chabrier
    Minka - Le Roi malgré lui

    Claude Debussy
    Mélisande - Pelléas et Mélisande

    Léo Delibes
    Lakmé - Lakmé
    Javotte - Le Roi l'a dit

    Gaetano Donizetti
    Lucia - Lucia di Lammermoor
    Marie - La Fille du régiment

    Charles Gounod
    Juliette - Roméo et Juliette

    Georg F. Händel
    Morgana - Alcina

    Jules Massenet
    Manon - Manon

    Wolfgang Amadé Mozart
    Die Königin der Nacht - Die Zauberflöte
    Pamina - Die Zauberflöte
    Konstanze - Die Entführung aus dem Serail
    Blondchen - Die Entführung aus dem Serail
    Zaïde - Zaïde
    Barbarina - Le nozze di Figaro
    Aspasia - Mitridate, rè di Ponto
    Elisa - Il re pastore
    Mme Herz - Der Schauspieldirektor

    Jacques Offenbach
    Olympia - Les Contes d'Hoffmann
    Eurydice - Orphée aux Enfers

    Giacomo Puccini
    Musetta - La Bohème

    Richard Strauss
    Fiakermilli - Arabella
    Zerbinetta - Ariadne auf Naxos
    Najade - Ariadne auf Naxos
    Eine Italienische Sängerin - Capriccio
    Sophie - Der Rosenkavalier
    Aminta - Die schweigsame Frau

    Jean Philippe Rameau
    Zima - Les Indes galantes
    Hébé - Les Indes galantes

    Maurice Ravel
    Le Feu - L'Enfant et les sortilèges

    Igor Stravinsky
    Rossignol - Le Rossignol

    Ambroise Thomas
    Ophèlie - Hamlet

    Giuseppe Verdi
    Violetta - La Traviata


    Career awards:
    Les Voix Nouvelle: First Prize
    International Mozart Competition: First Prize
    Six time winner of the French Victoires de la Musique Classique (most victories of any artist)
    Laurence Olivier Awards: Winner (2008)
    Chevalier de la Légion d'honneur
    Lauréate du Prix Grand Siècle Laurent-Perrier (2011)
    This article was originally published in forum thread: Artist in Depth: Natalie Dessay started by rgz View original post

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