Monday, July 10, 2023

A Conversation With Denyce Graves

© Devon Cass

Considered as one of the preeminent mezzo-sopranos of her generation, Denyce Graves has performed in many of the world’s most important opera houses, sharing the stage with many distinguished opera stars. Widely acclaimed for her signature title roles in Carmen and Samson and Delilah, Graves has appeared on Sesame Street and Between the Lions and featured on CBS’s 60 Minutes. She’s performed during the 55th Presidential Inauguration of Vice President Dick Cheney and George W. Bush. She’s sang “America the Beautiful” and “The Lord’s Prayer” at Washington National Cathedral during the memorial service for the victims of 9/11. And most recently, Graves has sung at the US Capital as her friend Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s casket was lying in state. In this conversation with Seattle Opera, Graves talks about her mother’s influence, performing with Elmo, her passion helping the next generation of classical performers, and more.

SEATTLE OPERA: When did you realize that you wanted to be a singer, in particular an opera singer?

DENYCE GRAVES: I know it was unusual for a little girl from Southeast Washington, D.C. to say, ‘I want to be an opera singer.’ I was 13 years old, when I heard a recording of Leontyne Price singing Puccini. I had never heard anything so glorious in my life. My friend told me about the recording. She said, ‘Denyce, I have just heard something that you have got to hear. I don't know what it is.’ She said, ‘I think it’s opera.’ She said, ‘It's a black lady. You have got to hear it.’

We went to the listening library at school. We put the needle on the album and listened to the end. I said, ‘Play it again.’ We listened to the album all day, we didn’t eat. We didn’t go to the bathroom. We stayed all day. Finally, we were told to leave when the library was closing.

Listening to her sing over and over and over and over and over made up our minds. My friend and I both decided in that moment that we wanted to be just like Leontyne Price.

SEATTLE OPERA: Your mother was an early endorser of your talents. She had an out-sized influence on your musical career. Tell us a little bit about your mom.

DEYNCE GRAVES: I’m so glad that you asked about my mother. So, thank you. The fact of the matter is my mother played a huge part in launching my career. While she did not find the recording of Leontyne Price, it was her who had me stand up in church. That was my first audience. My family had a singing group called, The Inspirational Children of God, and we would sing during Sunday services. She didn't realize—or maybe she did realize—what she was creating in that moment. Singing in the church taught us how to stand up in front of people, how to behave in public, how to speak properly, and how to display the talents that God had given us. And we had no choice in the matter. It was what we had to do.

SEATTLE OPERA: Would you say that Leontyne Price was your vocal mentor? She certainly nspired you to start, to be curious about a career in opera. Did you have other vocal mentors?

DENYCE GRAVES: It wasn’t until when I was singing at the Metropolitan Opera that I had the opportunity to meet Leontyne Price. She invited me to her home. The two of us talked about singing and the profession. Growing up I listened to Marilyn Horne, Grace Bumbry, and Shirley Verrett, all of whom I had the great pleasure of meeting. They also became my music mentors—artists that I wanted to emulate and who inspired me. What’s more, I would add Janet Baker to that list. She was someone that I listened to a lot.

SEATTLE OPERA: You’ve shared the stage with many of the great singers of our time, among them Plácido Domingo. However, I would like to know what it was like to perform with the widely acclaimed, multi-talented Elmo?

DENYCE GRAVES: The performances that I did on Sesame Street made me really cool in my family, certainly among my nephews. I became “Cool Aunt Denyce” after appearing on Sesame Street. I loved doing those programs. But I will tell you, they weren’t easy—not easy at all. The sessions were very long. Some of them were ten-hour days.

SEATTLE OPERA: Why did they take so long?

DENYCE GRAVES: There were so many technical aspects to iron out to produce those segments. There was a lot of hurry up and wait. The recording sessions sometimes took all day. I would arrive ready to sing then something would take 30 minutes to set up. So, I would go to the ladies’ room to vocalize to keep my voice warm. That went on and on and on and on. I would sing myself out before the tapings actually happened. On top of that, the studios were always freezing. They were ice boxes.

I believe I did 10 episodes of shows like Sesame Street and Between the Lions. I was always impressed by the show’s creative teams. They would take famous melodies and add new words for me to perform. The crew would hold up cue cards with just the words. It was left up to me to make the new words fit the melodies. It was tricky. “Elmo’s Bedtime Lullaby” is one of my favorite episodes. [Graves sings “Habanera” from Bizet’s Carmen] ‘The singing stars are twinkling up in the sky, it's time for you to go beddy-bye.’ Now, that was really tricky.

SEATTLE OPERA: Through your foundation, you've supported young music students, particularly those students at historically black institutions. You’re connecting those students to opportunities in major conservatories and opera houses. Why is this work important to you?

DENYCE GRAVES: When I meet the young and up and coming talent, I can see myself in their faces. They want the same things that I wanted when I was starting out—they want to pursue the same things that I wanted to pursue. I feel that we have a responsibility and an obligation to join with them in the pursuit of their dreams. I…we… have a responsibility to give back.

I've been able to have this career because so many people helped me. I mean, people know my name, but they don't know the names of all the people who helped me get here. I've not done this alone at all. And that phrase, ‘I stand as one, but I come as 10,000,’ is true for me and any many others. I want to be helpful in the same way that people have extended themselves to me. That's the greatest blessing about my 40-something years in the business. So many people have shaped my life and reshaped who I am.

I think it is also important that we celebrate the amazing Black classical artists we know and the many that we don’t know. We need to ensure that the next generation knows them too. We are not a monolith. There’s isn’t anything wrong with soul music or R&B or jazz or blues and all those things, but we are many, many, many different things. Classical artists of color have been around as long as classical music has been around but that's not been part of our education. So, I’m passionate about sharing the excellence of artists like Chevalier Saint-George, William Grant Still, and Nathaniel Dett along with Mozart, Bach, and Beethoven. Some of the work that we’re doing at the foundation is making sure those names are included in the curriculum, that they become part of the learning for everybody.

SEATTLE OPERA: Your foundation has played an important role in revitalizing interest in Mary Cardwell Dawson as well.

DEYNCE GRAVES: Yes, that’s true. Our foundation was instrumental in getting the seed money needed to restore Mary Cardwell Dawson’s historical property. She was the founder of the National Negro Opera Company in 1941. Our foundation has led some of the restoration’s philanthropic efforts. For example, after reaching out to First Lady Laura Bush, we were sent $800,000 towards the project.

We're very, very proud to have been instrumental in preserving the legacy of Mary Cardwell Dawson, and making sure that the world-at-large knows this great woman. We wouldn't be able to go to Beyonce’s Renaissance tour if it weren't for the likes of Mary Cardwell Dawson.

SEATTLE OPERA: When our country is in mourning, your voice has been heard as we collectively heal. Please tell us about your connection with Washington’s National Cathedral.

DENYCE GRAVES: I was born and raised in Washington, DC. I've had a presence in the city all my life and my relationship with Washington National Cathedral is long and deep. So, if there are special services—an Easter service, the dedication of a new window, or something of that nature—they often call me to sing. And I’m happy to do it.

After the events of 9/11, it was not unusual that the cathedral would reach out to me. Little did I know that it was going to be in front of five sitting presidents and what it would mean to our country in the weeks following. I’ve sang at the funeral of President Ford and for many important dignitaries during the Clinton and Bush administrations. Most recently, I sang for the unveiling of the portrait of Speaker Nancy Pelosi at the Capitol.

SEATTLE OPERA: Thank you, Ms. Graves. This has been a lovely chat. We are looking forward to your Seattle Opera debut in August. Have a nice Fourth of July.

Learn more about The Denyce Graves Foundation at


Das Rheingold runs August 12-20, 2023 at McCaw Hall.

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