By Ellen McCarthy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 14, 2009
This is what's transpired in the past six years of Denyce Graves's ever-epic life:
She was dumped by a boyfriend who no longer wished to follow her around the world. She found herself heartbroken and sick and finally went to a doctor who said he had news -- at 39, she was with child. Impossible, she replied: Throughout her previous 17-year marriage she tried repeatedly to get pregnant, but was told it could never happen because of fibroids and various other conditions. Besides, her then-lover had told her he'd had a vasectomy, she says.
But she was pregnant. The doctors urged her to abort, she says, because she wouldn't be able to carry to term. Then, Graves says, she was told the child had Down syndrome.
But in 2004 she delivered a healthy baby girl -- "and she's perfect."
So one of the most celebrated mezzo-sopranos of her day became a single mother to a daughter named Ella Thomas, ferrying the infant to concert halls around the world.
Then, in June 2006, she and Ella boarded a plane from Dulles to Paris and sat down next to love. It came in the body of a bespectacled, flamboyantly mustachioed transplant surgeon who knew little about opera and even less about Graves.
On Saturday Graves held the third of three wedding ceremonies to that man, Robert Montgomery, 49, a Johns Hopkins doctor known for his pioneering work in kidney transplantation. The two staged a family-only affair in June, traveled to Kenya for a traditional Masai blessing in August and wrapped up with a six-figure, five-day finale that included events at a private airplane hangar, Washington National Cathedral and the Anderson House in the Dupont Circle neighborhood.
Like their romance and her existence, it was dramatic, grand and complicated.
"This is your lucky day," Graves said to Montgomery as she and Ella, then almost 2, settled in to the business-class seat next to him on that transatlantic flight.
She was being ironic, of course, not knowing that he already -- earnestly -- agreed. Montgomery had seen Graves and Ella in the airport lounge before they boarded, and "I was struck by her presence," he recalls. "She was just illuminated. . . . I was transfixed."
Both are normally the type who refuse to talk to seatmates on long flights, but when Graves discovered the battery on Ella's DVD player was dead, Montgomery offered his laptop as a replacement and a conversation began. It continued from takeoff through landing, and spanned both their life stories.
Now 45, she had grown up without a father in Southwest Washington, found her talent early on, married a classical guitarist who became her manager in her early 20s, risen to the top of the opera world, sung for presidents and royalty, survived depression, divorce and surgery on her vocal cords. She'd tried to make things work with Ella's father after her daughter's birth, but they just didn't.
He grew up in Buffalo and Philadelphia, studied at Oxford, trained at Johns Hopkins, did aid work in Africa and gained national attention for the development of an innovative kidney transplant procedure that involves multiple live donors in disparate locations. He had also married young and had a son, John, and daughter, Elizabeth. But after some 20 years, the marriage began to crumble; Montgomery and his wife separated and seven years ago he fathered a second son, Max, with another woman.
"We exposed it all. I told her things you would only tell your hairdresser," Montgomery recalls, sitting in bare feet and a bathrobe two days before the final marriage ceremony, his facial hair still in braids after a welcome party the night before when he and Graves both wore the traditional Masai outfits from their African wedding. "What we had learned from life had been very similar -- we just felt this connection of wisdom and error and blessings and beauty in our lives."
At one point during the flight, the doctor remembers, their hands touched -- "and we both felt this thing and were like, 'Oh [expletive], what just happened?' It was like electricity."
The two disembarked not wanting the conversation to end. He traveled on to give a speech in Sardinia. She stayed in Paris and told all her friends she had just met "the most interesting man."
Montgomery stopped by Graves's home for tea on his way back through Paris the following week, and the two soon began what he calls a sort of "Victorian courtship." They traded long e-mails every few weeks and when Graves next performed in Washington, Montgomery and his daughter went to see her.
Though the e-mails continued, their connection was ambiguous and, as Montgomery puts it, rather formal. He asked her to a hospital Christmas party when she was in town visiting family for the holidays, and though they shared a first kiss that night, neither came away with any clarity about where the relationship was headed.
Two months later he flew to Wisconsin to see her perform, determined to tell Graves he thought he was falling in love with her. At an awkward pause over coffee, he lost his nerve. "And then," he recalls, "she just launched into it and said, 'I've been very surprised, but I can't get you off my mind.' "
"I think I started loving him even on the airplane," she says. "I know that I did."
There were logistical obstructions in the way of their romance: She still lived in Paris. He'd been separated from his wife for years, but the divorce wasn't finalized until this spring.
Their lives were like separate trees with deep roots that needed to be dug up and replanted together, Montgomery says, and, as difficult as that process sometimes was, "the love just kept coming through at every turn."
The force of that love, they both say, has been the greatest surprise of their lives.
"I understand what people are writing the poems about and writing the songs about," says Graves, who now lives with Montgomery in Bethesda. "It's just a bit of heaven. I feel like it's God saying, 'Hello, I'm here. I exist, you see?' "
Hence three weddings -- the chance to, as she put it, "scream it from the mountaintops." Almost eight years to the day after she sang "The Lord's Prayer" at the 9/11 memorial service, Graves entered Washington National Cathedral again, this time in a long white dress. The bride's and groom's children preceded her down the aisle, where she and Montgomery would be serenaded before their 150 guests by a violinist, trumpeter, organist, harpist, two pianists, a full cathedral choir and four opera singers, including soprano Alessandra Marc and matron of honor Anna Soranno.
As they recited their vows, Graves pulled Montgomery's hand to her cheek. Her voice broke with the words "till death do us part."
This relationship is different from previous ones, they say, because of its intensity and the intention with which they've approached it.
"It's the first truly conscious relationship I've ever had," Montgomery says. "We see a counselor every other week. We read books. We talk all the time about how to communicate better and to improve our relationship."
This one thing, his diva wife says, is simple: "I want to be good at loving him. I want it to be the best thing that I do."