Did Dessay Say Adieu Past ‘Manon’? Mais Non, Perhaps

French soprano Natalie Dessay, contrary to reports, isn't abandoning the world of opera - just yet.  (Photo by Simon Fowler)
French soprano Natalie Dessay, contrary to reports, isn’t abandoning the world of opera – at least not yet.
(Photo by Simon Fowler)
By George Loomis

When the Teatro Real in Madrid announced its 2014-15 season last month, it contained one detail about casting that was of more than passing interest. Natalie Dessay is scheduled to sing Marie in five performances of Laurent Pelly’s production of La fille du régiment. Because Dessay and the production – a delightful combination, to be sure – had already been seen together in several of the world’s great opera houses, nothing could seem less newsworthy, but for one thing.

Everybody seemed to think, based on interviews she gave last year, that performances in Toulouse as Massenet’s Manon in October of last year would mark her farewell to the opera stage. She expressed a desire to turn her attention to straight drama instead.

Now it appears that reports of her exit as an opera singer were greatly exaggerated.

Dessay is singing works by Clara Schumann, Brahms, and others on tour. (Simon Fowler)
Dessay is singing a varied recital program on tour. (Simon Fowler)

Or were they? Reached by phone in Montréal, where on March 8 she began a recital tour of North America that has taken her to Quebec and Boston and continues in New York (March 12) and San Francisco (March 15), the coloratura soprano maintained that she did not announce she would retire from opera. “I never said it was over, but that I would make only a pause.  Journalists are such strange people,” she added, implying that they hear what they want to hear rather than what is said.

“But I still haven’t signed a contract and I’m not sure I will do it, even though I love the production,” she said of her scheduled Marie. “The problem is, what roles are there for me to do?”At 47, she feels that the ingénue coloratura roles that suited her so well are no longer right. “I have looked thoroughly for new roles and haven’t found anything suitable,” she said resolutely, as if determined to fend off possible suggestions. As she has put it previously, “I am not leaving opera, opera is leaving me.” The difference between the two is subtle, but one allows her a loophole and the other doesn’t.

Dessay is hardly the first coloratura soprano to face this problem and, discerning artist that she is, faced it squarely. Sometimes a voice will allow a singer to expand from soubrette roles into those associated with greater maturity. Anna Netrebko, who has sung many of the same roles as Dessay, is currently making the transition by singing more Verdi. At issue for Dessay is the nature of her voice – pure, radiant, and exquisite, but small. She made a very credible Lucia, even though audiences are used to more substantial voices. But when she sang Violetta, you were conscious that the voice was not right for the music, despite a wealth of touching and arresting details.

Dessay as Lucia at the Metropolitan Opera. (Ken Howard)
Dessay as Lucia at the Metropolitan Opera. (Ken Howard)

As often happens when misinformation spins out of control, some reports even had Dessay giving up singing entirely. But a glance at her fascinating recital program, in which she will team with pianist Philippe Cassard, is enough to shatter that notion. It is a connoisseur’s program of German and French songs – Clara Schumann, Brahms, and Strauss, plus Duparc, Poulenc, Fauré, and Debussy, with not an overworked warhorse among them.

The program is all the more remarkable because she says that as a recitalist she is “just a beginner.” According to Dessay, she has sung only about 15 recitals in her career. “I was doing so much opera I never had time for recitals.” You might think she is trying to make a bold statement about finding a fresh artistic outlet – a new chapter after closing one on opera. But she shrugs that off with characteristic matter-of-factness. “These are just songs that I like and want to perform,” she said. “I’ve known them all well, except for the Clara Schumann songs, which were Philippe’s idea. And I am very happy with them. I have no other goal than to sing music I like.”

She is also comfortable singing in both languages, even though she acknowledges that her native French is difficult to sing in. “It is a flat language and not meant for singing, but it is my language and so I sing French music.” German, a language she said knows well, poses no special problems.

French pianist Philippe Cassard is Dessay's recital partner.
French pianist Philippe Cassard is Dessay’s recital partner.

The three German composers come first on the program, each represented by a group. But sandwiched between Brahms and Strauss are two songs by Duparc. “Putting them there was also Philippe’s idea,” she said, “and it was a good one because Duparc is our most richly Romantic song composer,” an interesting observation about the man known almost exclusively for his approximately 16 songs.

Among the other French songs, she singled out Poulenc’s song cycle Fiançailles pour rire (Light-hearted Betrothal) as a special favorite, in part because of the charming poems by Louise de Vilmorin, which Poulenc considered particularly feminine.

And what about her work as a straight actress? This would constitute a kind of career U-turn for her, since she pursued acting before turning to singing professionally. When performing opera, acting has been as important to Dessay as singing. But she demurred when asked about dramatic roles she would like to perform. “It’s really not so much about specific roles as who the director is and the other people you will work with. With the wrong people, the best roles can be a bad experience.”

She mentioned only one future project, the British playwright Howard Barker’s 1999 monodrama Und, which she was approached to do by the actor and director Jacques Vincey. Und tells of a woman waiting for the arrival of a man she has invited for tea; it turns out that she is Jewish and the man an officer at a camp. Dessay will perform it next year in a new French translation.

Getting back to opera, I asked whether, since she saw little chance of finding a suitable role among existing works, she had ever thought about an opera written specifically for her. But this didn’t strike a responsive chord, either. “What if someone goes to all the effort of writing an opera and I don’t like it?” In any event, it looks as if Dessay’s unique vocal artistry will remain very much with us, albeit primarily in the new setting of a concert hall rather than the opera house.

George Loomis writes regularly for the International New York Times and is a New York correspondent for Opera magazine.

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