Katharine Weymouth: Did you grow up listening to opera?
Denyce Graves: Not at all. I’m not coming from an experience where we listen to classical music or anything else apart from gospel music actually.
Katharine Weymouth: Your mother did not let you listen to pop music, right?
Denyce Graves: She did not, but I used to sneak in the bathroom at 5:00 in the morning and listen to Michael Jackson or whatever the popular songs were of that time.
I remember very well the very first day of kindergarten, clutching [my mother’s] skirt and not wanting to be left in a strange place with all these people that I didn’t know, and I remained like that until they started playing music.
Then they took us off to music class, and there was this woman who I just thought was an angel. She had the most beautiful voice and she’d sit at that piano and teach us songs, and I thought, I like this. And so from kindergarten through sixth grade, it was the course that I was looking forward to at school. She noticed that and would sometimes give me a measure or two to sing. Anyhow, when I left that elementary school to go to junior high school, unbeknownst to both of us, she became the music director also at this junior high school, and she got me involved in all-city chorus. She would come on Saturdays and pick me up from my house, take me to rehearsals, stay there with me during the rehearsals, bring me back home. It explodes my heart every time I think about this woman.
When I left junior high school to go off to high school, she said, “You have a pretty voice, and I think you should audition for the [Duke Ellington School of Performing Arts].” She got the application; together we filled it out. I auditioned.
Katharine Weymouth: Had you ever heard of it before?
Denyce Graves: I’d never heard of it before. She became the principal of the high school. So she was very, very instrumental in terms of setting me on this course and guiding me into a situation where I would later flourish and find my place and find my purpose.
While I was there, one day I was late getting into class and I ran into a girlfriend in the hallway and she said, “Denyce, I just heard something that you’ve got to come listen to.” She’d found a recording of Leontyne Price singing Puccini arias, and we went into the practice room, and we listened all day long - all day, all afternoon, all evening. We didn’t eat. We didn’t to go the bathroom. And finally, the janitor came and knocked on the door and said, you have to leave. We’d listen to the album and when it got to the end, I said, “Play it again then play it again.” And that for me was an incredible moment. I remember it very, very clearly.
Katharine Weymouth: Did you know that you wanted to do something like that?
Denyce Graves: I knew nothing about it. I just arrived at the school. I had never heard classical music in my life. I had certainly never heard opera. And here was this woman who had an unusual name, and I don’t know how my girlfriend found this album, but it was as if there was this incredible opening.
I’ve had that experience a couple of times in my life where there was this incredible knowing that rang true in my whole being that said this is what you’re supposed to do, and it was one of those moments. I heard this, and I didn’t even know if I could do such a thing. I had not taken voice lessons yet, but I was so moved. She changed my life that day.
Katharine Weymouth: There was a time when you lost your voice for about four months. It must have been, for someone whose career depends on your voice, a terrifying moment. Can you talk a little bit about how you got through that and what kept you going?
Denyce Graves: The first [time this] happened [was] when I was doing my graduate work at New England Conservatory. I just won the Metropolitan Opera auditions. In that time that I had won the regional auditions before going on to New York to compete in the nationals, I lost my voice. And when I say I lost my voice, I mean that that was the end of it. [The doctor] said, “You’re going to have to stop singing for a period of time,” because the more that I use the vocal folds, the more damaged they became. So I stopped singing. I stopped, and I took a job at a hospital, and it was very interesting.
So I worked [at the hospital] for about six, seven months. I got a call from the Houston Grand Opera who was running a young artists program and they said, we wanted to know if you would come down and audition. I said, thank you very much but I’m no longer singing. About three months later, they called again. And they called a third time. At that point, I hadn’t sung in over a year, and I had no idea what was going to come out. I told the woman on the phone, let me think about it and call you back.
That night, I had a dream that I had gone into the doctor’s office and I said, “Take a look at my vocal folds because I’m not able to sing.” He said, “Sing something.” And so I started to sing and people from the waiting room came and said, oh, what a lovely voice.
I called [the Houston Grand Opera] the next morning and said I’m coming. And so I went. I did the audition for Houston Grand Opera. They offered me a contract right away. And from that moment forward, everything changed.