When it comes to performance rituals, sopranos have their own, specific ways of preparing that set them apart from all other opera singers.
Even so, Danielle de Niese is one of those sopranos that defies stereotypes, happily cultivating a bubbly Californian persona over an exacting, imperious vibe. She's candid about being a night owl ("I’m trying to get into the morning habit for the HD," she says, referring to the HD transmission of the Met's Baroque pastiche The Enchanted Island this Saturday afternoon. "[Normally] Ariel sings her aria at 11:40 at night.") and of her love for all things digital.
This Monday, audiences can hear de Niese in a much more intimate setting, the downtown club (Le) Poisson Rouge, where she's unveiling her latest album, The Beauty of the Baroque. It's a venue whose size more on par with the operas of the 17th and early 18th centuries. Before that, however, we catch up with de Niese to see what's on her warm-up playlist and to find out who she calls every night before setting foot onstage.
I have to sleep. I’m really obsessive about making sure I get sleep, and the more sleep I get the better off I am. Obviously due to my late sleeping habits, I sometimes wake up for performances at three in the afternoon. That’s kind of a good thing I think, though. Because all the energy I have, I channel it into the performance versus actually being up for seven or eight or nine hours before the show.
I never ever go to a show without taking my vitamins. I take vitamin C and if it’s a cold season I take Echinacea. I don’t take Echinacea regularly because they say you can develop a sort of immunity to it. Sometimes grape seed or sometimes vitamin B. But I take a round of vitamins.
Time to Make the Pasta
I’m not sure why this is, but a lot of singers don’t eat during the show. I can’t do that. I’m like a very specific car that needs to have gasoline in it all the time. It also happened that when I was singing at Glyndebourne in 2005, I had to adjust to this idea of the dinner break where you have one hour and 45 minutes off. Most people don’t like that break but I love it because I was singing an exhausting role in Giulio Cesare, so the break was brilliant. I’d have a huge vat of pasta and sort of re-fuel, which I really need. And the amount of pasta I eat is dependent upon how exhausting the role is. I’m eating a portion and a half of pasta here, but in Giulio Cesare I was eating, like, three servings of pasta.
First in the Door
What I’m really, really particular about is my warm-up prep. I can be flexible about anything, but if I feel that my warm-up time is being infringed upon, if I feel that I don’t have enough time to warm up, I become very nervy and restless. And it takes a lot to make me restless. I make a point of going to the theater early. For example, in Enchanted Island, I get to the theater two-and-a-half hours early to make sure that I get one hour for hair and makeup to take their time and do what they need to do, but then I can also be done a good half hour to 45 minutes before curtain so that I can warm up on my own.
Eye of the Coloratura
My other obsession is my iPod. I’m sort of known as the Michael Phelps of the opera world—Michael Phelps always has his earphones on even when he’s walking up to the stand to swim in the Olympics. People think it’s weird, they really do, and my dressers are constantly ripping my earphones out of my ears because I’m so attached to my iPod I’ll go with it to the stage. For me, listening to music and keeping all of the external things out of my center of gravity is a way for me to focus in on myself and keep doing what I know I need to do before I get ready for the show. Otherwise, I can get chatty with people, and it’s very easy because we’re all social creatures.
In the Mix
On my warm-up playlist right now is Natasha Beddingfield who sings this song called “Strip Me” that I was listening to all summer—not that I want to be stripped. I always listen to the New Radicals. They have this song [“Get What You Give”] that I always call “You Got the Music in You” which is how the chorus goes. That is my “Eye of the Tiger” song, that’s my Michael Phelps get-motivated song… I love listening to Fischer-Dieskau and Elizabeth Schwarzkopf singing, they’re two of my idols. I love the nuance they bring, and I think that’s why I gravitate to them. I try to approach my own singing with liederistic qualities.
Segue into Solfege
I don’t think I’m one of those people who go, “Get out of my dressing room! I need to pray,” or “Get out of my dressing room! I need to get into character.” I’m not that kind of person, I can very easily get into character. But listening to the music keeps me humming, keeps me thinking about my positions, I’m constantly doing lots of technical work to improve. So when I’m focused in on myself, I’m inside my own sphere and my own mind and hum myself into a nice easing warm-up. I’m not one of those people that does a very strenuous, quick warm-up. I hum slowly in the daytime to wake up all those positions. It’s like yawning, you stretch everything and get into position slowly.
Speaking of Stretching…
I definitely do a stretch-out for Ariel. It’s very different to Cleopatra and it’s equally exhausting. The one thing I don’t have to do is sing and dance at the same time, but everything I’m doing is in a position where my body is engaged as if I was holding a balletic pose. So I stretch out my hips and I do lunges and a lot of rolling out my back just to open everything up. My costume is padded to give me this chunky boy look and I wear a leather harness. And inside my harness, there’s a metal rod to hold my wings in place, which can be really tense on my neck so I always try to stretch that out. I just sort of open up my center for that.
I always text my mom before I go on in the show. I always call her to tell her I’m going on. They still live in Jersey and we’re very close.