The sounds of tuning violins, deliberate piano notes, and operatic singing bounce through the corridors of Peabody’s Leakin Hall on a Monday afternoon. The singing comes from a spacious, high-ceilinged studio—outfitted with a Persian rug, a pair of sofas, and a grand piano—where voice major Tia Price practices an aria by Italian composer Francesco Cilea. As Price repeats passages, her teacher, perched beside her on a high stool, offers clipped suggestions and encouragement. “Stretch the vowel.” “Don’t back away from that.” “Take a breath there. Take your time.”
The instructor lowers her head, concentrating on the nuance of each phrase as the piece progresses, and emits a flurry of nods when she hears improvement. At one point, she throws back her head and practically shouts, “Lean into the first vowel of that diphthong!”
Moments later, she is shouting, “Lift, Tia! Lift!” and the piece crescendos with startling intensity. “That’s it, right there!” the teacher exclaims. “That’s diva singing!”
She would know. The teacher is Denyce Graves, opera superstar and a bona fide diva herself.
A beaming Graves gives her fellow mezzo-soprano a hug. “I love it,” she tells Price. “I see you working. It takes energy.”
Graves peppers her with feedback, right up until Price reaches for the door. “There’s one final thing we need to do,” says Graves. “We need to put real attitude behind it. You need to have a sense of bravura and feel that you’re the hottest thing.”
Graves exudes bravura, with her striking looks and regal bearing. Heads turn as she walks the halls at Peabody and makes her way to the cafeteria, where her purple dress and black spiked boots pop against the rumpled formality of fellow faculty members. She orders a cup of coffee and a small plate of pork barbecue and settles into a corner seat.
Arguably Peabody’s most acclaimed faculty member, the 48-year-old Graves began teaching in September to stay closer to home and spend more time with her husband, Hopkins transplant surgeon Robert Montgomery, and two children, Ella, 8, and Max, 10. “I wanted to put my toe in the water and see how it would work,” she says. “I wanted to start out with something I knew would be manageable, because my performance schedule is still robust.”
Indeed, she just returned from Minnesota, where she was work-shopping Doubt, the new opera based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play. The premiere performances conclude early this month in St. Paul. She also has February recitals scheduled in South Carolina, Tennessee, and Arizona, before a run of Salome performances with Palm Beach Opera in March.
“I’m coming into a very busy period in 2013,” says Graves, citing her responsibilities as performer, business head, mother, wife, and now, teacher. “There are days that I feel more successful juggling it than others.”
Graves made her Metropolitan Opera debut in a 1995 production of Bizet’s Carmen. In fact, a poster advertising that show hangs in her Peabody studio and inconspicuously lists her amongst the cast. An impressive performance helped establish her as a marquee name, and it became a signature role.
Martin Feinstein, former general director of the Washington Opera, called Graves “the definitive Carmen,” which was echoed by no less an authority than Placido Domingo. “As Carmen, she is so good that the world might want her exclusively for this role,” said Domingo. “That would be a shame, because she has very much to offer in other parts.”
Domingo’s statement proved
Domingo’s statement proved downright prophetic, as Graves went on to sing lead roles in numerous operas around the world and become, as USA Today observed, “an operatic superstar of the 21st century.” She developed a hefty repertoire of art songs, spirituals, and show tunes for solo recitals; recorded acclaimed CDs such as 2003’s The Lost Days, a Latin-jazz project; and appeared on Larry King Live, 60 Minutes, The Oprah Winfrey Show, and Sesame Street.
She also gave stirring performances at times of national importance, singing at the National Prayer Service after 9/11, George W. Bush’s second inauguration, and former president Gerald Ford’s funeral. A YouTube clip of her performance at the 9/11 service shows Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton, Barbara Bush, George H.W. Bush, Laura Bush, George W. Bush, and Colin Powell watching from the audience.
If she’s intimidated by such high-stakes performances, she doesn’t let on. Instead, she shares a favorite saying, something the Italians say for good luck prior to going onstage. “They say, ‘In bocca al lupo,’ which means, ‘into the mouth of the wolf,’” she says, smiling. “And your response has to be, ‘Crepi lupo,’ which means, ‘May the wolf die.’”
Her smile widens. “I am a real stage animal,” she says, “though I didn’t always know that.”
Graves credits a former teacher, John Moriarty, for bringing out that quality during an artist-training program at Central City Opera in Denver. By that time, she’d discovered the music of Leontyne Price while attending the Duke Ellington School of the Performing Arts in D.C. and studied at Oberlin College and the New England Conservatory.
“[Moriarty] really brought me out of my shell,” recalls Graves. “Our relationship was very direct, and there was nothing in the way. He said what he felt and was extremely passionate. He gave everything he had and worked hard to impart what he knew to us. Whatever I’m celebrated for on the stage, it is because of him.”
Graves takes a similar approach with her own students.
“Her teaching style is fast-paced and hands on, and there is rarely a moment of down time,” says Tia Price. “She expects you to give your best, which does not mean singing everything perfect or providing the best interpretation. For her, giving your best is being courageous and stepping out of your comfort zone on a day-to-day basis.”
“Her classes have been outstanding, and her students adore her,” says Phyllis Bryn-Julson, chair of Peabody’s Voice department. “When she is around, it lights up our department, and she has become a real presence on campus. Denyce is the kind of great singer/teacher/mentor we look for.”
One of the keys, says Graves, is relating to the students. “I understand them,” she says. “We’re the same. I just have some experience on them.”
The Peabody job and life in Baltimore have had other, more personal, benefits for Graves. When her family was living in D.C., her husband’s commute to Hopkins could take hours. Now, it takes less than 10 minutes from their Canton home. “We love it, because we actually see him,” says Graves. “Now, we see him for breakfast, and he comes home for dinner. We can do things together at night. It’s fantastic.”
Still, the move to Canton wasn’t Graves’s first choice. She’d actually rather be in Parkton, where the family lived on a farm until a fire destroyed their house last July. “It burned completely to the ground,” she says, pulling up a series of photos on her phone that show a lone brick chimney standing on charred earth. “The chimney was all that was left.”
At the time, Graves and her family were on vacation, camping at Lake Placid, and no one was hurt. The animals they raise—alpacas, which are like small llamas—were also unharmed. She says her first thought was, “‘Here are my kids, my husband, the dog. I’ve got my people. I’m fine.’ It could have been a very different story if we had been home, so, to me, it felt like a gift.”
The next day, the family got a call from the animals’ caretaker. An alpaca baby boy had been born that morning. It symbolized, for Graves, what she’d been going through recently. Coming after the fire, it was downright operatic. “It was a new day, a new beginning, a new chapter,” she says, noting that they plan to rebuild on the property.
They named the alpaca Phoenix.