A conversation with Carousel’s Denyce Graves

The Lyric Opera’s bright and shiny new take on Carousel—one of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s absolute best—is busting out all over in a star-studded revival. Denyce Graves, world-renowned for her unparalleled pipes and presence, talks about the sassy character of Nettie Fowler, motherhood on the road and that time she got to be on Sesame Street.

Welcome back to Chicago!

It’s a beautiful theater; I’m happy to be back here. The last time I was here my little daughter was one, and now she’s ten.

So not only do you have a global career, but you’re a mother as well. (Graves also has a son, 12, and two adult children.) Is it true that your youngest daughter was named after Ella Fitzgerald?

That’s true! It’s a voice that I have loved for such a long time. And as I was being brought into the delivery room, the music playing in the hospital was Ella Fitzgerald.

That’s a sign! Does your daughter travel with you?

Yes, now. In 2012, I traveled a lot. For my daughter in particular, it was really difficult. She called me crying, saying, “You’re always gone,” and I said to my husband, “If I accept another year like I did in ’12, I’m going to take her with me.”

She called me at the theater last night and said, “Mom, can we have a talk when you get home?”

And when I got home she said, “I just want to be a normal kid. I like being with you, but I want a normal life. I want a mom who takes me to the carpool and who picks me up.”

So I told her we were going to make some changes because it all does go by really quickly. So that’s the struggle. You know, not a lot of opera singers build families. Some do, but you really have to modify that a lot.

I’ve found that with most performers, there’s no such thing as “balance.” You’re either doing one or the other and feel like you’re not devoting enough to either at any given time.

I think women, in particular, are always trying to find a way to balance everything, to have it all. We want to have careers, we want to be able to be independent and we also want to have partners and families and all of that stuff. Sacrifices are being made everywhere you look. At the same time, I’m showing my children a strong woman who has gone after her dreams.

And I’m sure you’re able to provide them with incredible experiences.

Exactly! I might not be the stereotypical or conventional mom, but I’m bringing something else to the table and that makes me a more complete and fulfilled human being, which then makes me a better partner and better mom. Without a doubt.

(But, last night), I had to pick her (Ella) up at 7 p.m., but they decided we were going to go into overtime, and I had to say to everybody, “Look, I have to go.” They made an announcement to ask everybody to stay until 8 p.m., and I was the only person to get up and leave.

So then you feel like you’ve got the big spotlight on you.

(laughs) It felt like a gigantic spotlight was shining on me, but it was like, I’ve got to go pick up my child, this isn’t where we live!

And I’ll tell you, I had some agita about that. Oh my goodness I didn’t stay, maybe that wasn’t a good example, I’m a veteran in the business.

All of that stuff was going through my head last night as I sat on the couch with my daughter while she cried and told me she wants to have a normal life.

One of the great problems is that you feel you’re never in the moment or right place at the right time. You’re always wishing or longing or preparing to be or recovering from being somewhere else.

You’re not just thinking about Nettie Fowler.

You’re always going! I’ve not done this kind of schedule before, eight performances a week. And after the shows, there’s this incredible adrenaline rush, you can’t get to bed before 3 in the morning, and then at 5 a.m., the dog is up and says, “Let’s go,” and so it’s non-stop.

But this will be a real test of endurance to go through this kind of schedule while my family is here and take care of myself and rest the voice.

Rodgers and Hammerstein, this is one of their classics. Do you think newer audiences will connect to it as well?

Well, the story is timeless. Everybody can appreciate the story. And the director has a fresh approach to it. It won’t be what you’ve seen before, that’s for sure.

It’s beautifully sung, a handsome cast, everything’s gorgeous. Everything is a feast for the eyes, the ears and the heart, too. It’s really, really touching material.

And this is your first foray into musical theatre? What drew you to this show?

It’s the Chicago Lyric, so I knew that the quality of it was going to be great. And I knew that I had some killer pieces in it, and I had never done this before and thought, why not.

And hearing how Rob Ashford was going to direct it, it was going to be this new production, all of these wonderful things. It was something I was looking forward to all season.

You’re playing Nettie, and she’s considered the female backbone of the play. I’d love to hear your thoughts on her!

I would say that she’s the hope of the community. I’ll tell you one thing that kind of stings a little bit. I’ve been known in the operatic world for playing sort of these seductresses, and then the last two or three years I’ve been playing these moms.

She (Nettie) is this woman who’s lived and had experience teach her. She can sort of guide others, but then step out of the way and let things unfold the way they were destined to. And if anybody needs a shoulder or an arm around them, she’s there and available. She’s the great nurturer.

You’ve performed in the most famous opera houses around the globe, and have even sung at the White House. But I need you to tell me a little bit about working with Elmo on Sesame Street.

The coolest thing ever. The coolest thing EVER. I did nine different episodes with them—so much fun.

And I swear to God, they live. Expressions on their faces, and when I was in Elmo’s little bedroom with his little lamp and his little bed and tucking him in, it all felt real.

I was enchanted. Completely and totally magical. One of the most beautiful and unforgettable experiences of my career.

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