View from the Top ó David Daniels, ten years on

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 Mozartís ìMitridate Re di Pontoî 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 colleaguesÖ..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 wouldnít be too testing a time to ask him to review how heís met the challenges of his first decade in opera.
So we sat and discussed that opera-singerís 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. Thatís still young in opera terms of course, but itís a good time in anybodyís life to take stock. Many people know Danielsí 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 heíd always considered his most natural instrument, his countertenor voice, that for too long had been relegated to the car, shower or bar. His ë94/í95 season in the USA saw the birth of a new phenomenon in baroque opera: the ëstarí countertenor ó an oxymoron in previous decades. But to Daniels, it was simply fulfilling a dream, a career that, he thinks, was pre-destined. ìI come from a small but very close-knit family, both parents were opera singers, and then singing teachers, and my brotherís a professional cellist and I just grew up with music ó Iím 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 ó Iíve booked a lovely old Southern mansion, pillars, the whole thing! Itís a real ìGone with the Windî sort of place..ÖI just hope Iím not too jet lagged when I get there on Wednesday. Iíve planned it all from here, which probably explains my AOL bill ó itís enormous! But itíll be great for them, I hope.î
Looking back over the last ten years since his first big break in ìL’incoronazione di Poppeaî at Glimmerglass in í94/í95, I wondered if he was entirely happy with all his career choices? Were there any regrets? ìIím extremely happy, and no, I donít think Iíd have done anything really differentlyÖyou know, you learn a lot in a career like this, you make a few mistakes here and there but from the beginning Iíve always known myselfÖ.you know? I grew up in the business, knew about singers ìblowing outî and having five-year careers ó Iíve watched it! ó so I think Iíve always made incredibly intelligent choices about singing, I know whatís right for me and I think Iím really in tune with my voice in that way. In fact, if anything Iím overly-critical of myself ó to a fault ó and I guess itís the only thing in my life Iím 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 Öyeah, thatís the curse of the singerî. He laughs ruefully.
So, what did he regard as highlights of that past ten years on the opera stage, where heís regarded as pre-eminent in his voice-type? ìWell, obviously, singing Nerone in ìPoppeaî at Glimmerglass in í94 was pivotalÖ.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 ó 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 ó itís a lower tessitura, Nerone is so high ó and so I sent in a tape ó and got the audition, and the role of Nerone. So, yes, if Brian had decided otherwise, who knows what would have happenedÖ..I guess you could say I maybe owe my career to him! Certainly at that time no manager would bother to hear meÖthe countertenor voice just didnít mean anything back then in the States. I lived, like I say, by waiting table between very sparse engagements, as I couldnít get management. My partner John and my parents helped support me ó my parents werenít loaded for sure, but they helped me out when I really needed it, and Iím so grateful to them, the odd $500 ó or even $5000 ó 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 rolesÖMunich has been so very important to my European career. And of courseÖÖ (adopting a deadpan expression) .. wearing ìpanniersî in ìMitridateî has just got to be one of my favourites.î 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?
ìI made a mistake ó I was taking a blood-thinner for some back pain I had, just at the start of the run of ìGiulio Cesareî at the Paris Opera Garnier in the fall of 2002, and my vocal cord leaked on me. It didnít 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 ó ìoh, a haemorrhage on the vocal cord ó end of career ó heíll never sing again!î ó yes, itís crap, of course it is, itís just an injury like any sportsman might get. A runner going for gold in the Olympics may pull a hamstring, itís real bad luck, but it doesnít mean that athlete wonít 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 ó it would certainly be more supportive Ö.more collegialî His voice trails off, thoughtfully. ìYou 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 ó my friends. You know, Iím a person with a huge, really huge, number of acquaintances, but I donít open myself up to many people in that way ó I just have a handful of very very close friends, and they are just so important to me.î
If thereís 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 heíd faced over the last ten years was in his relationship with the music press? ìEarly in my career ó like any personís career in this business ó I was a new product, a new commodity and could do no wrong: everything was ìamazingî, ìfabulousî ìoh God, Iíve never heard anything like this beforeîÖand so on. But now thatís so not the case and itís 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 ó because Iím 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 ó and certainly not on the Internet! Oh no, ho- ho no!! Itís all this personal crap Ö.itís just so wrongî.
At this point he leans forward intently. ìYou know Sue, weíre in this business to make music, to create entertainment, yes, but also maybe something at a higher level too, and thatís what it should be about, and what I try to concern myself with. But itís not always easy. If the criticism was just something about the voice, ok, but itís often something really personal like the way I look or something and that drives me nuts. Iím sure other singers feel the same, although I know even established ones who still run to the newsstands, or discuss things in ìchat roomsî 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 Iím as gracious as possible, but I have to protect myself, my time and my privacy. Iím lucky, as none of my fans has ever ëcrossed the lineí but, (and here Daniels seems to really warm to his theme) sometimes, if Iím 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 thatís a risk that person is taking, and I sometimes feel that the blame is on me and that I should feel guilty. Thatís when I donít 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 donít sing, we donít get a cent, not a cent, and itís not only that material stuff, but itís the fact that weíve worked our ass off, as I have for this role (Farnace) and I wanted to enjoy it as much as possible ó and you know what happened. Trust me ó trust me ó itís just as frustrating for the performer as it is for the fans. But I can promise you that I never ëcancel just to cancelí. I only cancel if Iím ill; I have way too much pride and respect for myself to ever walk on stage and be less than my best. Thatís why youíll never hear an announcement ëMr. Daniels is indisposed but he will sing tonightí ó I wonít do that. If Iím so ill that I need an announcement then I shouldnít be on the stage. Except, maybe, maybe, if I donít have a cover, like in Munich where they donít 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 ó hey, yes, as does every fan.î
Since Daniels came on the opera scene over ten years ago, one way for a successful singer like him to lighten the pressure of fansí interest in, and appetite for, artistic or personal news is the ìofficial websiteî. 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 ìhands onî with the fans. They are usually created and run by a singerís 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: ìoh no! No way! Iím just so not one of those singers who enjoy that sort of thing ó you know: (adopts sing-song childish voice) ëHi fans! Iím here in sunny South Beach and blah de blah de blah Ö.íî Firmly: ìI 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,Ö. I wouldÖ (he looks around the flat in mock panic) ó Iíd rather cut my wrists!!î Heís laughing, but the message is clear. Itís 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 didnít see Daniels as the studious type of singer, buried in libraries, dissecting texts and comparing performance practices in the roleÖ.. He chuckled at that. ìYouíd be absolutely right there! Your observations are ó correct. I think that the majority of us in this business are people who do tend to leave the learning to pretty late and thatís because we just work too hard to be able to spend weeks at it in advance and itís 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 weíve 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 donít think the neighbours were too bothered, I donít sing out much when Iím studyingÖBut, you know, the secret is to plan ahead. A full year and a half ago, for instance, I warned David Alden, the director for ìOrlandoî 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 Jonasís (Bavarian State Operaís Intendent) last year there. Theyíve been very loyal to me, and I hope that will continue ó Iíve certainly got a contract with them for the next couple of years.î
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? ìOf course itís a pressure, being away up to 9 months of the year, absolutely, but itís also allowed us to enjoy things we wouldnít otherwise have been able to enjoy had I been an insurance salesman in Washington DC or something. Heís 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 Ö.but it drives me crazy too! Two crazy people, but hey, if youíre married to a singer, you just deal with it ó and he does. Heís been a huge help to me in staying sane ó I think.î I wondered if that support extended to the wider gay community in the States and elsewhere. ìYes, a big percentage of them are supportive and are proud of what Iíve achieved (by being one of the very few ëoutí opera singers) and appreciative too. I get some very personal and meaningful, respectful, thank you letters and notes and thatís nice. Iíve 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. Theyíve 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 itís all worth it. Sure, I hear the occasional bitchy or unpleasant remark, but you know Sue, thereís only one thing I can do: and thatís 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 universeî.
That may be so, but thereís one more extraordinarily important element in his life that hasnít 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 ó this man is serious about sport and serious about its place in his life. ìYes, itís a huge thing, really huge for me, and you know Iíd go nuts if I had to live in Europe for more than four months as Iíd miss out on those sports.î I mention basketball in particular, as itís the one he actually still plays at home, along with tennis, and he interrupts helpfully with ìthatís the one with the orange ball you have to get into the basketÖ..î Continuing, I asked if heíd ever thought about the similarities of that game and being on the opera stage? ìYes of course, I think about it a lot ó the agility, balance, training, teamwork ó and itís a similar good feeling afterwards too, only the pressures are a bit different: you canít compare a game in a gym with ten friends to walking out in front of thirty eight hundred people!î
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 ó that of achievements versus aspirations ó 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 heís just signed for a third time as an exclusive artist ó unusual enough in this day and age ó 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 heís especially proud of three of them, the initial ëHandel Ariasí cd, his ëSerenadeí recital disc and his collaboration with Fabio Biondi on his Vivaldi sacred music recording. ìThereís a lot of really good music on thatî. And heís also proudly defensive of perhaps his most risky venture to date, his recording of Berliozís ìLes Nuits díEteî which received quite a few ìmixedî reviews, often from people who just couldnít cope with the idea of an American countertenor singing those almost iconic French songs. Daniels is adamant: ìIím thrilled that I did that and ultimately, ultimately, I think that recording will be respected by more people.î
But itís the state of complete opera recordings that really concerns him, especially his own: Virgin Classics are simply not able, in todayís 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 Handelís ìGuilio Cesareî are going unrecorded for posterity. ìIts money; they say they canít afford to do it. Iím not really complaining, Iím just so frustrated, and I know that Iím lucky to have my recording contract. But even the labels who are doing whole operas are recording them live to save money.î I add that they are mostly being done in Europe too. He agrees ìyes, and I really only work regularly over here in Munich, although of course the Liceu in Barcelona is doing a DVD of the Britten ìMidsummer Nightís Dreamî I sang Oberon in last spring ó so thatís something.î
Itís 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 ó the ground-breaking Peter Sellars production of Handelís ìTheodoraî from Glyndebourne and the slightly wacky Munich take on his ìRinaldoî. Perhaps the ìin-houseî DVD of live performances will be the only way to keep performers of Danielsí quality preserved beyond their singing lifetimes? ìIím 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.î
With that statement offering hope, we turn finally to a happier topic: his upcoming projects. Itís the first eighteen months of the next decade that are focussing his mind right now. Discs will include, in order of recording, Pergolesiís ìStabat Materî with Dorothea Roschmann, Bach Arias (ìnot another ëCountertenor singing Bach Cantatas!î) and an American songs disc. In the opera house in the next year alone itís more new or newly-staged roles: ìOrfeoî at Chicago Lyric, ìOrlandoî at the Bavarian State opera in Munich, interspersed with returns to ìRodelindaî in San Francisco (this September) and ìCesareî 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. Itís not a whole opera ó that remains a major goal ó but it will be a considerable work of about 20 to 25 minutes, a ìcantata for solo alto and orchestraî commissioned by the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Itís the brainchild of the orchestraís General Manager Paul Hughes, who has admired Danielsí 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 yearís work is daunting. Does he ever wish he was that ìsomething in insurance in Washington DC?î He laughs Ö. ìNo way, never, this is what I was born to do Ö.. and this is how I do it.î
© Sue Loder 2005.
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