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David Daniels (Photo: Virgin Classics)
14 Sep 2005

View from the Top — David Daniels, ten years on

The life of an opera singer is not for the faint-hearted. It’s one of dizzying highs and lows, a crazy roundabout of heart-warming praise and soul-piercing criticism. No-one gets off lightly — even the best in the world — and to survive just a decade of this madness is an achievement in itself. I’ve been following the progress of American star countertenor David Daniels for a while now, so when I was asked to write a ten year retrospective on his career it seemed to me that, with a lot written already about that career, the “how” would be more interesting to discuss than the “what” or “when”. And the viewpoint that would give the most insight into how this exceptional singer came to be where he was would be: his own.

David Daniels

Photo by Virgin Classics


So, on a blazing hot July afternoon earlier this year, I was sitting with David Daniels in his rented flat near Covent Garden, London, near the end of his run as Farnace in Mozart’s “Mitridate Re di Ponto” at the Royal Opera. He looked tanned and relaxed in his habitual jeans, trainers and polo shirt, and both the computer screen and the golf on TV were vying for his attention as I arrived. It had been a difficult week for him and, in its way, a microcosm of the lifestyle: weeks of hard work in a challenging production, a triumphal opening night, a fine group of singing colleagues…..and then an infection, some sort of head-cold. One night he was too ill to sing, two performances were very hard work, but then a final matinee with a voice that was nearly back to the full bloom of the first night. He has a reputation for old-world Southern charm spiced with a sharp wit, so I hoped it wouldn’t be too testing a time to ask him to review how he’s met the challenges of his first decade in opera.

So we sat and discussed that opera-singer’s lifestyle, and how it has evolved in tandem with his achievements, and I came to realise that, like a growing tree, his artistic life was marked by growth-rings with good years and bad alike imprinted on his memory, with both combining to help produce a mature artist now hovering on the brink of his 40th year. That’s still young in opera terms of course, but it’s a good time in anybody’s life to take stock. Many people know Daniels’ story by now: how he came to give up on an essentially disappointing and frustrating career as a young tenor and took the plunge and changed to what he’d always considered his most natural instrument, his countertenor voice, that for too long had been relegated to the car, shower or bar. His ‘94/’95 season in the USA saw the birth of a new phenomenon in baroque opera: the ‘star’ countertenor — an oxymoron in previous decades. But to Daniels, it was simply fulfilling a dream, a career that, he thinks, was pre-destined. “I come from a small but very close-knit family, both parents were opera singers, and then singing teachers, and my brother’s a professional cellist and I just grew up with music — I’m very close to my parents and call them just about every other day. In fact when you arrived I was on the computer trying to organise a 50th wedding anniversary party for them down in their home state of South Carolina — I’ve booked a lovely old Southern mansion, pillars, the whole thing! It’s a real “Gone with the Wind” sort of place..…I just hope I’m not too jet lagged when I get there on Wednesday. I’ve planned it all from here, which probably explains my AOL bill — it’s enormous! But it’ll be great for them, I hope.”

Looking back over the last ten years since his first big break in “L'incoronazione di Poppea” at Glimmerglass in ’94/’95, I wondered if he was entirely happy with all his career choices? Were there any regrets? “I’m extremely happy, and no, I don’t think I’d have done anything really differently…you know, you learn a lot in a career like this, you make a few mistakes here and there but from the beginning I’ve always known myself….you know? I grew up in the business, knew about singers “blowing out” and having five-year careers — I’ve watched it! — so I think I’ve always made incredibly intelligent choices about singing, I know what’s right for me and I think I’m really in tune with my voice in that way. In fact, if anything I’m overly-critical of myself — to a fault — and I guess it’s the only thing in my life I’m a real perfectionist about. You learn, as time goes by, how to manage yourself, how to keep a balance say, between socialising and staying quiet, knowing how much of each is good for you and your voice, and that balance is always changing. Not just as you get older, but every day! Your body is different every day …yeah, that’s the curse of the singer”. He laughs ruefully.

So, what did he regard as highlights of that past ten years on the opera stage, where he’s regarded as pre-eminent in his voice-type? “Well, obviously, singing Nerone in “Poppea” at Glimmerglass in ’94 was pivotal….really pivotal in my career. And you know, I only got that role in a really strange way: a friend from college called me where I was waiting tables in a restaurant, between the occasional auditions and small roles, and told me about the Glimmerglass production. They were still casting for roles but Brian Asawa had been engaged already, for either Nerone or the other countertenor role, Ottone, and had been given the choice — he was a couple of years ahead of me in the business and more of a name than me then. He decided that Ottone suited his voice better — it’s a lower tessitura, Nerone is so high — and so I sent in a tape — and got the audition, and the role of Nerone. So, yes, if Brian had decided otherwise, who knows what would have happened…..I guess you could say I maybe owe my career to him! Certainly at that time no manager would bother to hear me…the countertenor voice just didn’t mean anything back then in the States. I lived, like I say, by waiting table between very sparse engagements, as I couldn’t get management. My partner John and my parents helped support me — my parents weren’t loaded for sure, but they helped me out when I really needed it, and I’m so grateful to them, the odd $500 — or even $5000 — was a godsend! Apart from that, I must say my debut as Sesto at the Met and my Carnegie Hall recital debut were really important, and my Munich roles…Munich has been so very important to my European career. And of course…… (adopting a deadpan expression) .. wearing “panniers” in “Mitridate” has just got to be one of my favourites.” Obviously, the unwieldy extravagances of that costume design were not to be easily forgotten.

Moving on swiftly, I wondered if it might be wise to broach the obvious next subject. To ask any opera singer to recall bad times as well as good is always a risk, but Daniels is pretty open and honest about such things and this perhaps tends to alleviate some of the more painful memories: for instance, when he injured his throat. How did it happen?

“I made a mistake — I was taking a blood-thinner for some back pain I had, just at the start of the run of “Giulio Cesare” at the Paris Opera Garnier in the fall of 2002, and my vocal cord leaked on me. It didn’t happen while I was singing the first night, but the next day. Now, that sort of thing can just get so out-of-proportion you know — “oh, a haemorrhage on the vocal cord — end of career — he’ll never sing again!” — yes, it’s crap, of course it is, it’s just an injury like any sportsman might get. A runner going for gold in the Olympics may pull a hamstring, it’s real bad luck, but it doesn’t mean that athlete won’t run again, he just needs time to heal. But I do wish opera people would be more understanding, more upfront and open about such things — it would certainly be more supportive ….more collegial” His voice trails off, thoughtfully. “You know, it was bad enough coming back from a thing like that, with your confidence shaken, wondering if it would happen again, and it took a full year and half for me to get over it in my mind. But I got through it with the support of John, my parents, my management and — my friends. You know, I’m a person with a huge, really huge, number of acquaintances, but I don’t open myself up to many people in that way — I just have a handful of very very close friends, and they are just so important to me.”

If there’s one thing an opera singer certainly needs friends around for, it is dealing with the potential hazards of press criticism. I wondered if one of the more important changes he’d faced over the last ten years was in his relationship with the music press? “Early in my career — like any person’s career in this business — I was a new product, a new commodity and could do no wrong: everything was “amazing”, “fabulous” “oh God, I’ve never heard anything like this before”…and so on. But now that’s so not the case and it’s pick and chip, chip and pick, so about four years ago I just decided it was time for me to stop reading everything. Occasionally friends will send me something if they think I really should see it, but no, nothing bad — because I’m way, way too thin-skinned. I go into this funky, funky depression and I take everything personally; it was utter stupidity for me to ever go and try to read something about myself — and certainly not on the Internet! Oh no, ho- ho no!! It’s all this personal crap ….it’s just so wrong”.

At this point he leans forward intently. “You know Sue, we’re in this business to make music, to create entertainment, yes, but also maybe something at a higher level too, and that’s what it should be about, and what I try to concern myself with. But it’s not always easy. If the criticism was just something about the voice, ok, but it’s often something really personal like the way I look or something and that drives me nuts. I’m sure other singers feel the same, although I know even established ones who still run to the newsstands, or discuss things in “chat rooms” with fans on the Net, even confronting those who complain about something! I think life is way too short for any of that. I like to talk to my fans after a performance and I hope I’m as gracious as possible, but I have to protect myself, my time and my privacy. I’m lucky, as none of my fans has ever ‘crossed the line’ but, (and here Daniels seems to really warm to his theme) sometimes, if I’m ill, I think that people need to realise that singers do get sick and miss concerts or opera performances. If a fan is buying a ticket and taking an air flight somewhere to hear me, or any singer, then that’s a risk that person is taking, and I sometimes feel that the blame is on me and that I should feel guilty. That’s when I don’t appreciate that sort of thing. And yes, of course it can be a crushing disappointment, but so it is too for the singer! After all, if we don’t sing, we don’t get a cent, not a cent, and it’s not only that material stuff, but it’s the fact that we’ve worked our ass off, as I have for this role (Farnace) and I wanted to enjoy it as much as possible — and you know what happened. Trust me — trust me — it’s just as frustrating for the performer as it is for the fans. But I can promise you that I never ‘cancel just to cancel’. I only cancel if I’m ill; I have way too much pride and respect for myself to ever walk on stage and be less than my best. That’s why you’ll never hear an announcement ‘Mr. Daniels is indisposed but he will sing tonight’ — I won’t do that. If I’m so ill that I need an announcement then I shouldn’t be on the stage. Except, maybe, maybe, if I don’t have a cover, like in Munich where they don’t have covers usually, then there is some pressure to sing and I might be forced to do it. Yes, every singer has a view on this — hey, yes, as does every fan.”

Since Daniels came on the opera scene over ten years ago, one way for a successful singer like him to lighten the pressure of fans’ interest in, and appetite for, artistic or personal news is the “official website”. Over the past decade these have blossomed into a mini-industry of their own with specialist site-designers and writers, and often include calendars of performances, audio clips, photos, and articles. Some involve the singer him or herself as well, if they want to get “hands on” with the fans. They are usually created and run by a singer’s publicity company, or agent, and can vary enormously in range of content and topicality. Was this an approach that attracted him? At that, Daniels waxes both lyrical and comedic: “oh no! No way! I’m just so not one of those singers who enjoy that sort of thing — you know: (adopts sing-song childish voice) ‘Hi fans! I’m here in sunny South Beach and blah de blah de blah ….’” Firmly: “I never even wanted one; I was forced to have one! God, if I was ever made to have to answer those personal questions and things for real I would,…. I would… (he looks around the flat in mock panic) — I’d rather cut my wrists!!” He’s laughing, but the message is clear. It’s time to move on.

One thing that all successful opera singers share is a need to manage an ever-contracting schedule. Recitals, recordings, rehearsals, all have to be juggled inside a diary that is forever changing and the most challenging thing, I thought, must surely be to have to learn a new role from scratch with the clock ticking. Somehow, I didn’t see Daniels as the studious type of singer, buried in libraries, dissecting texts and comparing performance practices in the role….. He chuckled at that. “You’d be absolutely right there! Your observations are — correct. I think that the majority of us in this business are people who do tend to leave the learning to pretty late and that’s because we just work too hard to be able to spend weeks at it in advance and it’s tough to get motivated. But once I start to learn, I memorize very quickly and I do that by repetition, over and over. I only really started to pound at this role, Farnace, in the two weeks before I came over for rehearsal but we’ve got a really fantastic new house back home, with a deck and trees, and it was really easy to sit out in the sun, with the music, and it came very quickly. I don’t think the neighbours were too bothered, I don’t sing out much when I’m studying…But, you know, the secret is to plan ahead. A full year and a half ago, for instance, I warned David Alden, the director for “Orlando” in Munich next year, that my schedule was looking really tight before I come over. Doing this opera was my idea, and I really am looking forward to it as it will be in Peter Jonas’s (Bavarian State Opera’s Intendent) last year there. They’ve been very loyal to me, and I hope that will continue — I’ve certainly got a contract with them for the next couple of years.”

Being away from home so much, be it in Munich, London, or even on the West Coast of America, did life on the road ever get too much either for him, or his partner of nearly twenty years, John Touchton? “Of course it’s a pressure, being away up to 9 months of the year, absolutely, but it’s also allowed us to enjoy things we wouldn’t otherwise have been able to enjoy had I been an insurance salesman in Washington DC or something. He’s incredibly supportive and happy about things generally; but of course sometimes the neurotic and paranoid fears that singers go through can drive him nuts, as he feels he wants to help protect me from it all, and that drives him crazy ….but it drives me crazy too! Two crazy people, but hey, if you’re married to a singer, you just deal with it — and he does. He’s been a huge help to me in staying sane — I think.” I wondered if that support extended to the wider gay community in the States and elsewhere. “Yes, a big percentage of them are supportive and are proud of what I’ve achieved (by being one of the very few ‘out’ opera singers) and appreciative too. I get some very personal and meaningful, respectful, thank you letters and notes and that’s nice. I’ve had some majorly moving letters from young gay people with problems coping with their sexuality, thanking me for being open and honest and showing that someone can be a successful, happy, openly gay man. They’ve read articles about me that have helped them through bad times at home, or wherever, and if you get just one letter like that, then it’s all worth it. Sure, I hear the occasional bitchy or unpleasant remark, but you know Sue, there’s only one thing I can do: and that’s just continuing being as real, honest and open as I can be, and not trying to make every single different person out there happy. I am who I am, I do what I do. I hope that the majority of people who come to see me realise that what I do is incredibly important to me and that is the bottom line. Other things are part of the story, but not the centre of my universe”.

That may be so, but there’s one more extraordinarily important element in his life that hasn’t changed a bit over the past ten years: his intense love of sport, and in particular of the quintessential American sports of basketball, baseball and American football. Make no mistake, these are more than passing interests or convenient topics of conversation — this man is serious about sport and serious about its place in his life. “Yes, it’s a huge thing, really huge for me, and you know I’d go nuts if I had to live in Europe for more than four months as I’d miss out on those sports.” I mention basketball in particular, as it’s the one he actually still plays at home, along with tennis, and he interrupts helpfully with “that’s the one with the orange ball you have to get into the basket…..” Continuing, I asked if he’d ever thought about the similarities of that game and being on the opera stage? “Yes of course, I think about it a lot — the agility, balance, training, teamwork — and it’s a similar good feeling afterwards too, only the pressures are a bit different: you can’t compare a game in a gym with ten friends to walking out in front of thirty eight hundred people!”

So is he a totally fulfilled artist, here in 2005? Is everything in the garden rosy? No, not entirely, and once the subject is broached — that of achievements versus aspirations — once again David Daniels reveals a degree of focus and determination to make the most of his extraordinary career. He is delighted with his ongoing relationship with EMI Virgin Classics Records, with whom he’s just signed for a third time as an exclusive artist — unusual enough in this day and age — as it means he can record virtually anything he likes as a solo artist and has done. His discography now numbers some ten ensemble/opera recordings and eight solo discs and he’s especially proud of three of them, the initial ‘Handel Arias’ cd, his ‘Serenade’ recital disc and his collaboration with Fabio Biondi on his Vivaldi sacred music recording. “There’s a lot of really good music on that”. And he’s also proudly defensive of perhaps his most risky venture to date, his recording of Berlioz’s “Les Nuits d’Ete” which received quite a few “mixed” reviews, often from people who just couldn’t cope with the idea of an American countertenor singing those almost iconic French songs. Daniels is adamant: “I’m thrilled that I did that and ultimately, ultimately, I think that recording will be respected by more people.”

But it’s the state of complete opera recordings that really concerns him, especially his own: Virgin Classics are simply not able, in today’s economic climate, to commit to hugely-expensive studio recordings of complete operas any more, and that means that many of his signature roles in the baroque repertoire, such as Cesare in Handel’s “Guilio Cesare” are going unrecorded for posterity. “Its money; they say they can’t afford to do it. I’m not really complaining, I’m just so frustrated, and I know that I’m lucky to have my recording contract. But even the labels who are doing whole operas are recording them live to save money.” I add that they are mostly being done in Europe too. He agrees “yes, and I really only work regularly over here in Munich, although of course the Liceu in Barcelona is doing a DVD of the Britten “Midsummer Night’s Dream” I sang Oberon in last spring — so that’s something.”

It’s really bad luck to be singing opera now, as the industry battles with declining sales of CDs, illegal downloading, and no clear way forward. Daniels has, of course, two operas safely preserved on DVD already — the ground-breaking Peter Sellars production of Handel’s “Theodora” from Glyndebourne and the slightly wacky Munich take on his “Rinaldo”. Perhaps the “in-house” DVD of live performances will be the only way to keep performers of Daniels’ quality preserved beyond their singing lifetimes? “I’m singing more opera than any other countertenor in the history of the voice-type and in houses that never heard a countertenor sing before, and it would be nice to have some sort of discography to reflect that, before I stop. But we are trying to plan ahead.”

With that statement offering hope, we turn finally to a happier topic: his upcoming projects. It’s the first eighteen months of the next decade that are focussing his mind right now. Discs will include, in order of recording, Pergolesi’s “Stabat Mater” with Dorothea Roschmann, Bach Arias (“not another ‘Countertenor singing Bach Cantatas!”) and an American songs disc. In the opera house in the next year alone it’s more new or newly-staged roles: “Orfeo” at Chicago Lyric, “Orlando” at the Bavarian State opera in Munich, interspersed with returns to “Rodelinda” in San Francisco (this September) and “Cesare” at Glyndebourne. Just as exciting is the probable fulfilment of yet another item on the Daniels wish-list: another new work commissioned entirely for his voice. It’s not a whole opera — that remains a major goal — but it will be a considerable work of about 20 to 25 minutes, a “cantata for solo alto and orchestra” commissioned by the BBC Symphony Orchestra. It’s the brainchild of the orchestra’s General Manager Paul Hughes, who has admired Daniels’ work for several years and will be composed by the outstanding British composer Jonathan Dove, with a premier scheduled for October 2006.

The sheer breadth and range of his next year’s work is daunting. Does he ever wish he was that “something in insurance in Washington DC?” He laughs …. “No way, never, this is what I was born to do ….. and this is how I do it.”

© Sue Loder 2005.

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