washingtonpost.com  > Print Edition > Front Page
Page 3 of 4  < Back     Next >

Denyce Graves, After the Low Notes

The diagnosis for her throat was potentially career-ending -- tests revealed a small, non-cancerous polyp on her vocal cords, says Steven Zeitels, a surgeon at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital.

Opera singers differ from other types of vocalists by the manner, and the intense pressure, in which they vibrate their vocal cords -- tiny folds of flesh -- together to make sound. Conversational speech is generally around 120 hertz. For a mezzo-soprano like Graves, full-voice singing is somewhere around 700 hertz, which means the vocal cords are colliding 700 times a second. The fibrous tissue of the polyp did not vibrate, however, causing her voice to become unsteady.


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)

"She had a small lump, which was a problem in itself, but it was also bleeding, which made it a double issue," Zeitels said.

Zeitels removed the lump in early summer of 2001. Graves told no one.

"It's taboo for opera singers to say they had vocal surgery, because if people know you've had it, they have an excuse to say, 'Oh, she's off,' or your performance is diminished," she says. "I was never willing to discuss it. I didn't want anyone to know."

Still personally unsteady, she was just coming back into full voice when the terrorist attacks hit Washington, New York and Pennsylvania on Sept. 11, 2001. President Bush asked her to give voice to the nation's lament at the memorial service at Washington National Cathedral. The event was to be broadcast live around the world. Graves rose to sing "America, the Beautiful" and "The Lord's Prayer," wondering what kind of sound was going to emerge.

The sound of her voice, as it happened, was moving to millions of people the world over. She had scarcely left the cathedral when her cell phone began ringing -- former president Bill Clinton, who had been in the audience, was one of those on the line. Oprah Winfrey had her on her show. So did Larry King. Even NASCAR booked her -- white Southern race-car enthusiasts stopping for a black opera star to serenade them.

She was, suddenly, at the peak of her crossover appeal. And she was falling apart.

Her marriage to Perry, 14 years her senior, was ending, an unhappy fact that set into play a deep depression. They had been friends, business partners and confidants for nearly 15 years.

"It's hard to bring something to an end, to be responsible for bringing that sort of devastation and cause so much pain," she says. "My husband was loyal, faithful and stood by me like a soldier. I literally would have died without him. Even with all that . . . there was a hole in me."

Perry declined to be interviewed for this story. They remain friends and business partners -- but the marriage was finished.

Graves fell in love with Vincent Thomas, a French composer who often accompanied her in concerts on the clarinet. And despite what doctors had told her was impossible, she became pregnant.

Ella (yes, for Fitzgerald) arrived in June, via an emergency Caesarean in Paris.

"It was a gift, a miracle," Graves says, beaming. "All the doctors told me the pregnancy wouldn't last. But it did. God was looking out for me."


< Back  1 2 3 4    Next >

© 2004 The Washington Post Company