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Denyce Graves, After the Low Notes

D.C.-Born Mezzo-Soprano Reclaims the Stage, Her Life

By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 24, 2004; Page A01

Night is falling outside, somewhere far above a small dressing room in the bowels of the Kennedy Center.

Denyce Graves closes the door. A dim fluorescent light glows overhead. The impossibly long fingers of her left hand spread over an octave on an upright piano. She hits the notes, once, twice, warming up her throat by blowing out through her lips. Bbbbbrrrrrr. Bbbbbbrrrr.

Ella was born to Denyce Graves in June, after an emergency C-section in Paris. "It was a gift, a miracle," Graves says. (Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)

The mezzo-soprano is rehearsing for her starring role in "Il Trovatore," the Verdi classic that opened last night before a sold-out audience at the Washington National Opera.

But this day, a week earlier, is rough going.

She's worn from a lack of sleep from staying up with her infant daughter. She's getting over a cold. Her right hand is cupped over her ear, her hair spilling over her shoulder, her face pulled into a grimace of concentration.

Far from the stage lights, this is the Denyce Graves the public never sees, a 40-year-old woman who has been battling four years of depression, turbulence and upheaval, all scrupulously kept out of the public eye. In 2000, when she began to undergo a series of debilitating physical and emotional crises, her vocal cords -- the ones that made her world famous -- began bleeding.

She lost the ability to speak. She underwent surgery for her throat, and four more times to improve her chances of having a baby. Concerts were canceled. She lost 45 pounds in seven months. She had an emotional breakdown. Her marriage of 15 years ended. A pregnancy, beset by bleeding onstage during a performance in Germany, ended in an emergency C-section this summer.

Her daughter, Ella, now 4 months old, survived.

Graves, after so many years of doubt, finds herself starting anew with her child -- more at peace, perhaps, but no longer the fairy-tale image of the D.C.-girl-from-the-block-who-made-good.

"I was showing one thing and living another," she says, describing her public image and her private reality by holding one palm open and the other closed. "I was a good girl -- a good girl -- and I lived my life that way. I did what was expected of me. I didn't want to disappoint people. It's what everyone wanted. But I was living the life of this persona called Denyce Graves, and it just was not who I was."

During the next two weeks, Graves will star as the Gypsy Azucena, one of the most demanding roles of her career. Moving away from the parts that made her famous -- the title roles in "Carmen" and "Samson et Dalila," in which sex appeal was dominant -- she plays an aging, scheming mother who avenges one murder with another. Wearing a wig of flowing dreadlocks with a smattering of gray, in the half-light of backstage she looks something like Nobel laureate Toni Morrison -- and plays a character who might well be found in one of that author's complex novels.

"This role signals such a change in what she's been performing," says Stephen Lawless, the British director of "Trovatore." "The range, both musically and emotionally, is much more demanding."

Placido Domingo, general director of the National Opera, who has often played Samson to Graves's Dalila, also recognizes the sharp career change Graves is making. He's conducted her in new roles in "The Damnation of Faust" and "Duke Bluebeard's Castle," and, when casting this role, thought she was perfect.

"We thought of her and the beauty and richness of her voice," he wrote in an e-mail from Los Angeles. "[Onstage], you can just look into her eyes and know what an actress she is, watch her body language, everything."

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