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.
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."
This kind of stardom is what she wanted and it's what she got, ever since the pride of Galveston Street became one of the world's most famous opera singers more than a decade ago. But real life gets in the way, the sort of real life you don't think about when you're in seventh grade and you're an unpopular black girl in a grimy neighborhood of Southwest Washington and you decide you are going to transcend your surroundings and do the one thing that you love for the rest of your life and become very rich and very famous.
"I guess things don't always go the way storybooks tell you," Graves says with a rueful laugh, driving her SUV down North Capitol Street one afternoon after rehearsal last week. "You don't necessarily live happily ever after."
Raised by a church-going single mother in a neighborhood near the Blue Plains sewage plant, Graves blew through the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, scrubbed pots and pans to put herself through Oberlin College Conservatory of Music and the New England Conservatory, and blossomed, in her late twenties, as a star alongside Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti and Jose Carreras. She was the definitive Carmen of the 1990s, and parlayed that high-profile role into opera superstardom.
She performed more than 150 times a year, all over the world. When Oxford University Press in London published a history of the opera, they put her picture -- and hers alone -- on the cover. She crossed over to a popular audience, and her Christmas special on PBS became an annual event. She and her manager husband, classical guitarist David Perry, were guests at the Clinton White House and fixtures on the arts circuit.
You burn that bright, though, and the candle burns down, whether in public or private, whether you want it to or not. Nobody runs forever.
By 2000, hidden from public view, Graves's life was unraveling.
She had always had severe headaches, but now they came in clusters, severe things that would cause her to black out. She was hit with paralyzing self-doubt. She wanted children, but doctors said she was physically unable. She had the first of four operations to try to change that.
In the fall of that year, while performing in Chicago, she had an emotional breakdown. "My dark night of the soul," she describes it now.
Stuck in a hotel room and terrified, she called her mother, Dorothy Graves-Kenner, and her friend Eve Soldinger, who was trained in meditation, to come on the run. The collapse was so personal, and so severe, that she kept it hidden, even from her husband.
"She called and said, 'I need you now,' " Soldinger, now living in California, recalls in a telephone interview. "I'd known Denyce for years and had never heard her like that. She sent a car to pick me up and take me to the airport the next day. I got there, and it was just the two of us in a hotel room. We did meditations, on how to focus, and how to determine God's will. She was very distraught. . . . We were up till long after midnight."
Graves had little choice but to return to the stage -- she was booked years in advance -- but the headaches returned with brutal efficiency. She performed her signature role of Carmen in Florida, with doctors "shooting me up with cortisone every night."
The nadir of her physical problems came a few months later when she was performing at OperaDelaware. Feeling awful, she forced herself onstage for the first half of her performance. Just before the second set, "I sneezed, and I had no voice," she says. She drops her voice to a stage whisper. "I don't mean I sounded like this. I mean I opened my mouth and no sound came out at all. I was bleeding from my vocal cords."
The bleeding happened twice more in the coming months -- she took to walking around her mansion in Leesburg with a notepad looped around her neck so she could communicate -- and she was forced to cancel months of concerts. She was terrified she would never sing again, says biographer Rob Howe.
"There's a vulnerability to Denyce that you could never imagine, having seen her onstage," Howe says from his home in California. "When people meet her, they see this person who is so much larger than life, and it takes a long, long time to see the demons she struggles with."
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.
"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."
Four months have gone by, and Graves seems to have turned a corner.
She bought a house west of Paris to be with Thomas, and is in the process of moving there. Her mother, Dorothy Graves-Kenner, agreed to travel with her daughter, helping her care for Ella while Graves performs.
When Graves-Kenner looks at her daughter now, she says, she sees "a more mature, seasoned person. She's always been disciplined, but now she's a little bit older. I see her as well rounded."
Her mother's help doesn't relieve the diva of the challenges and stresses of motherhood.
"Did I tell you I pumped 23 bottles of milk before I left for one trip?" Graves tells the hairdressers backstage while getting her wig touched up last week, drawing peals of laughter. "You know how much that hurts?"
She also brought Ella to rehearsals. The infant, sitting on her grandmother's lap, was transfixed, watching her mother with the rest of the cast a few feet away.
"There's my girl! There's my girl!" Graves cooed.
A night or two later, Graves is sitting in her dressing room in the Kennedy Center, the same building where she heard opera for the first time and, as a child, longed to be sitting just where she is now. She is wearing an orange robe and partial makeup, waiting for rehearsals to begin. The door is closed. It is quiet -- she is the only one in the actors' hallway -- and, for a moment, the rest of the world seems far away.
There is her reflection in the mirror: smooth skin, high cheekbones, and, beneath the makeup, a tilt of the jaw and an edgy light in the eyes. There is a flicker of a smile, not that of an ingenue.
Denyce Graves, at 40.