Friday, June 17, 2011

To the Manor Born: Danielle de Niese at Home in Glyndebourne

"The 32-year-old Australian-American soprano not only stars at Glyndebourne, the privately run opera house in southern England, where we are meeting, she lives there too. In December 2009, De Niese married Gus Christie, third-generation owner and executive chairman of Glyndebourne Festival Opera. They live in the 17th-century country house adjoining the auditorium, where this summer she will sing the role of the beautiful, unattainable Adina in a revival of a 2007 production of Donizetti's light-hearted L'elisir d'amore, of which all 16 performances have already sold out. Nestling in the Sussex Downs, Glyndebourne is a rural idyll. For much of the year the predominant sound is of sheep in the surrounding fields. But for four summer months it is an internationally renowned opera house, overrun by black-tie audiences, many of them bankers and city types who think nothing of spending £250 (Dh1,508) on an opera ticket. Today in the quiet pre-season period, De Niese could be forgiven for keeping her door shut. And yet she has agreed to have lunch with me in one of the in-house restaurants, today being used as the canteen for staff and performers. De Niese makes an unlikely lady of the manor. The daughter of Sri Lankans who emigrated to Australia, she spent her early years in Melbourne and, aged 9, was the youngest winner of Young Talent Time, a TV show. Shortly after, she moved with her family (she has a younger brother) to Los Angeles, where she became a guest host on a live show for teenagers called LA Kids. Given this precocity, it comes as no surprise to discover that De Niese was only 15 when she made her professional opera debut with the Los Angeles Opera. She later went to the Mannes College of Music in New York."

"What does De Niese make of Glyndebourne's dyed-in-the-wool English traditions of behaviour and dress? 'When I first came to England [six years ago], it was like coming back to something I knew,' she says, as we plunge into our food. 'I spent my first ten years in the Commonwealth. I come from cricket, crumpets, cucumber sandwiches, the Queen.' The alliterative picture she conjures up makes me laugh and I ask if that is what defines English culture for her. Not at all, says De Niese. 'That would be like saying French means eating escargots, Italian is pasta, American is cheeseburgers. It goes deeper. What I see as especially English is the charm — everyone is so polite. Being restrained is part of the charm. And I love the sense of humour — it takes me back to Australia. The English are great at making fun of themselves.'"

"'Why do the English use the word pants for underwear? I was in the gym, where I do boxing, so I had to take my wedding ring off. It wasn't till afterwards that I realised I'd forgotten to put it back on. I told Gus I'd left my ring in this guy's pants. They weren't his actual pants. The word ‘pants' comes from ‘pantaloon', doesn't it?' While De Niese is earnestly recalling the incident, I can't help wondering what a blast of fresh air this classless woman, a product of talent, not privilege, must have injected into the social milieu of the Christie clan. If Christie had consciously set out to update Glyndebourne's image, he could not have done better."

"Although De Niese has been doing most of the talking, she has finished eating far ahead of me. To help me catch up, I ask her about the dazzling earrings, bracelet and long gold necklace she is wearing, all with matching white-and-grey mother-of-pearl. She has, she explains, a 'relationship' with French luxury jeweller Van Cleef & Arpels, meaning she wears their most expensive products on public occasions. So what is the value of today's assemblage? For the only time in our conversation, De Niese falters. A mere £19,000, she says, 'but these are for keeps.' This distinguishes them from the jewels she wears for photo shoots and big social events. 'When I'm wearing millions of dollars to the theatre [on loan], they like to have bodyguards in my dressing room. In places where there is already high security, like when Gus and I were invited to Buckingham Palace, the guards don't need to be there. But they do have their uses. When I arrived at St James's Palace to see Prince Charles and Camilla, I put the heel of my shoe through my Donna Karan dress. It was so funny to see the guards trying to thread needles.'"

Read the whole interview here.

(Photos: Chris Dunlop/Decca)

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