Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Happy Birthday to: Denyce Graves-Montgomery

Denyce Graves at the 2011 City Center Reopening
The other day, I caught part of the groundbreaking ceremony of the National Museum of African American History and Culture building at the Smithsonian. Streamed online, I wanted to make sure to catch it because I saw on Twitter that Thomas Hampson would be singing... little did I know that Ms. Denyce Graves (Montgomery) would also be lending her voice...

It got me thinking: Ms. Denyce ... where've you been hiding?

It seemed like the in the late '90s and early '00s, Denyce Graves was everywhere ... and then, it seemed that she - well - she fell off the Mainstream Operatic Radar. So, given that today is her 48th birthday, I decided to do some research on her life and career.

It turns out that Denyce Graves' stellar career, almost wasn't. After attending the Duke Ellington School for the Performing Arts high school in her native Washington DC, Graves went off to study with renowned voice teacher, Helen Hodam, first at Oberlin Conservatory and then, at the New England Conservatory (NEC). While in Boston at NEC, she took side jobs to support herself: cleaning dorms, working as an all-night hotel desk clerk. When she decided to enter the Metropolitan Opera Regional Auditions, she had all the makings of a finalist: a generous and richly luminous mezzo-soprano voice and a gorgeous stage presence. But, her performance was charged with a special determination. As the story goes, she was four months behind in her rent and couldn't even pay for the rented dress she was wearing.

Needless to say, she won.

After the competition though, her voice failed her. The problem later turned out to be a treatable thyroid condition. But her performance at the finals in New York City was an absolute disaster. Crippled by that experience, she quit singing and became a secretary.

Yet the word of this young African-American mezzo-soprano spread and it wasn't long before Graves received a phone call that would change her career - and life. Houston Grand Opera called to invite her to participate in its young artist program. She declined. When they called twice more, she accepted.

Thus began a career straight out of the Book of Operatic Fairy-tales: She was performing more than 150 times a year with conductors like Riccardo Chailly, Christoph Eschenbach, James Levine, Zubin Mehta, Lorin Maazel, Kurt Masur, Riccardo Muti, and Mstislav Rostropovich - on the stages of companies such as the Metropolitan Opera, Los Angeles Opera, Covent Garden, Washington National Opera, Houston Grand Opera, San Francisco Opera, Michigan Opera Theater, Cincinnati Opera, Opera Carolina, Opera Company of Philadelphia, Dallas Opera, Vienna Staatsoper, La Scala Milan, Grand Théâtre de Genève, Genoa’s Teatro Carlo Felice and Opernhaus Zürich... In fact, when Oxford University Press in London published a history of the opera, they put her picture -- and hers alone -- on the cover.

With a grand career such as this, Graves was on top of the world, right? Not so...

In 2000, Graves' personal life had begun to unravel. She had always suffered from severe headaches but, now they had become so severe that they were causing her to black out. Again, crippling self-doubt set in. Also, weighing heavily on the star was the fact that she so-badly wanted to have children - she had 4 surgeries to try help her - but, was ultimately told it wouldn't happen for her. She finally broke down in the fall of 2000.

Both Graves' mother and best friend received distressing phone calls from her: "I need you to come and I need you to come now." Stuck in a hotel room in Chicago, Denyce Graves was having a breakdown. This was something so deeply personal, that she hid it from everyone - including her then-husband, David Perry. But, the show had to go on.

Her headaches continued and their ferocity grew - she was being given cortisone injections every night and continued performing until one night while performing with Opera Delaware. Graves sang the first Act and then, during the intermission, sneezed and suddenly .... there was no voice. Denyce Graves had a hemorrhage on one of her vocal cords - which, as per usual, was created by a polyp on the opposite cord.

Her doctor's name, Dr. Steven Zeitels, probably sounds familiar to some of you who frequent this blog. He is the surgeon who recently operated on singer Adele. But, let's remember that 12 years ago, it was an absolute taboo for opera singers to have vocal surgery. And, if you did go and see Dr. Zeitels, you kept it secret for fear that you'd be considered "tainted goods".

After her period of silence and rehabilitation, Denyce Graves was just coming back to full voice when she received another call that would change her life and career. Shortly after September 11, 2001, she was called upon by our President to help comfort a grieving nation by singing at the National Service of Prayer and Remembrance. Here is part of that service:


She had barely stepped foot out of the cathedral that day when her cell phone started ringing. Former president Bill Clinton called her to personally thank her, Oprah Winfrey wanted her on her show and so did Larry King. Even NASCAR booked her for an upcoming event.

But, her silent battles raged on ... her marriage was falling apart. Graves and David Perry divorced shortly thereafter. Even though they remained friends and business partners as well, the dissolving of the marriage let to bouts of depression.

Graves then saw a ray of light - she 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. In 2004, during a performance in Europe, Graves began bleeding. After being rushed to the hospital, there was only one solution, her baby would have to be delivered via emergency c-section. And so, little baby Ella was born (named after Ella Fitzgerald, of course).

In 2006, Graves met Robert Montgomery, a Johns Hopkins doctor, on an airplane from Dulles Airport to Paris. They were married on June 29, 2009, in a family-only affair. In August of that year, the couple traveled to Kenya for a tradition Maasai blessing and in September, they had a five-day wedding celebration that featured a kick-off party in a private airplane hangar, a private dinner at their home, a reception at the Anderson House in Dupont Circle, and a day-after picnic on the grounds of Duke Ellington High School. The September event was covered by People Magazine.

It should be noted that Dr. Montgomery is now the Chief of Transplant Surgery at Johns Hopkins Medical Center.

As for Denyce Graves-Montgomery, she is still singing of course - although it doesn't seem that many staged operas are present on her books. In addition, her website shows a place for people to register for voice lessons with the famed mezzo-soprano - when you click on it, you see "Details will be be shared very soon! Check back for updates." Indeed, I will.

So ... what a story, huh? Happy Birthday, Denyce Graves-Montgomery! I'm sure I speak for many when I say that I wish you continued happiness and much success.

Now to celebration portion of this post ... here are a couple of my favorite performances by one of the fiercest divas around:


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