- Interview -
Above and beyond excellence
Building on 30 years spent excelling in the art of opera, Natalie Dessay is now exploring other paths: jazz, French song, theater... A driven artist and exceptional personality, she is now also savoring the pleasure of letting go.
Artistically speaking, is excellence an end in itself or a goal to be reached so as to break free from it?
It all depends on which art one exercises. The quest for excellence is an intrinsic part of an opera singer’s profession, which involves extremely technical and athletic feats that must be accomplished as well as possible, just as in competitive sports. Conversely, theatre is more about laying oneself open, being available, listening to one’s partners. It is above all a matter of being fair, true, sincere and honest. Our weaknesses and imperfections can be beneficial in acting, whereas they are detrimental to singing.
How does an opera singer work on her voice so as to develop its contrasts, its colors and its virtuosity?
By regular practice, for carefully regulated periods. It is impossible to work on vocal technique for more than one hour a day. Our daily schedule also includes improving our knowledge of languages, of music itself, of musical scores and of course breathing – an art so complex it took me 25 to master! Such a program calls for rigorous discipline, specific exercises and a healthy lifestyle resembling that of an elite athlete.
A year ago, Sony released the magnificent album Between Yesterday and Tomorrow, in which you perform a work by the composer Michel Legrand. Was this a decisive encounter?
It was essential! Michel Legrand showed me the path to true liberty and encouraged me to give free rein to my voice. I like to say I was not fortunate enough to meet Mozart, but that it’s not so bad since I have the privilege of working with this brilliant modern-day composer! He began writing this work in the 1970s. He completed and fabulously re-orchestrated it so that we could record it together. A wonderful gift.
I certainly hope so, because it brings me infinite happiness. I learn daily by observing my fellow actors, listening to them, scrutinizing them. I love the incredible interaction between thespians: the jubilation of welcoming the unexpected, of living fully in the moment so as not to reproduce what one did the previous night, of repeatedly recapturing a sense of freshness, as if one were discovering the script for the very first time. When I performed opera roles, I especially loved experiencing feelings and sensations, bringing the characters to life. So I naturally want to continue acting for the next 30 years of my life!
What role has excellence played in the course of our incredible career?
It has allowed me to cultivate my gift – my voice – much as one would strive to make a garden bloom. It has taught me what work is, along with everything that contributes to the trust theater directors now feel in me: breathing, adjusting my pitch, conveying the melody of words and the rhythm of phrasing.
Based on an interview by Michèle Wouters
Photos © S. Fowler - Sony Classique
Through to December 23rd 2018
Stefan Zweig’s Legend of Life.
Some of them had never seen the sea.
Adapted from Julie Otsuka’s novel.
Théâtre des Quartiers d’Ivry.
Concert with Fred Manoukian’s Big Band.
Scène Musicale - Paris.
Concert with Philippe Cassard.
Scène Musicale - Paris.