Ain’t no octave high enough – countertenor David Daniels – Brief Article
Countertenor opera star David Daniels talks about how he learned to stop worrying and love his “other voice”
Maria Callas at times spoke of “the voice,” as if it were a temperamental entity with which she constantly reckoned. For opera star David Daniels, it was what he called “the other voice” that would eventually transform his career. As a graduate student at the University of Michigan, he was a frustrated tenor struggling with high notes that couldn’t break the top of the musical staff. At dorm parties, though, he sometimes showed up as the guest diva soprano, singing in his rich falsetto “other voice.”
“It was always something campy and entertaining, me standing in the corner in a sheet with a bunch of dried flowers in my hair, singing arias from La Forza del Destino,” says Daniels. “But I was always very serious about the way I did it, which made it all the more effective.”
In 1992 he went to a therapist, thinking his inability to produce a legitimate tenor sound was due to a mental block. “In one session I talked about my ‘other voice’ to her, and she was quizzical about that,” he says. The therapist was struck by the way he spoke as if it belonged to someone else. That very day, he realized, “This is my voice. I own this voice. It’s part of me and it’s my natural voice.”
Nine years later, the handsome countertenor is one of the most sought-after stars in opera. He is a regular guest at major international opera houses and was a 1999 Grammy nominee for his CD of arias by Handel. “David is an exquisite singer,” says opera star Marilyn Horne, who has sung many of the same roles that Daniels now performs. The first time she heard him at an audition, she recalls, “He sang an aria from Tancredi with the high A and everything. It was just amazing to hear the beauty and technical prowess he had.” Says Martin Katz, the acclaimed vocal teacher and accompanist who usually plays for Daniels’s concerts: “He has this wonderful combination of beauty and honey-colored sound, and when he needs to move fast, he certainly can.”
Although Daniels claims there is no connection between his coming out as a gay man and his venture into the countertenor repertoire (he and his partner, John Touchton, had been together for several years before his career change), Daniels is undeniably responsible for creating a gender-blurting revolution in opera. The countertenors who preceded Daniels possessed neither his masculine looks nor his voluptuous sound. “Generally they were quite hooty-sounding,” says Home. “David is different.”
“I really admire this guy, because it takes guts to walk out on the stage and know that people are going to be kind of freaked out by the juxtaposition of your looks and your sound,” says Katz. “It’s kind of a political statement as well as a musical statement. It’s wonderful to see the positive effect of liberation on a cultural phenomenon,” In a sense, Daniels has single-handedly paved the way for a whole generation of new countertenors. According to Home, the time was ripe. “I think the fact that so many people are out of the closet is part of it,” she says.
Daniels grew up in Spartanburg, S.C., the son of two voice teachers. As a boy soprano, he constantly sang opera arias around the house. After puberty, he explains, “I was biding my time for my voice to change and … surprise! It hasn’t changed yet.” All those years of singing in a soprano range resulted in a strong vocal muscle memory. “I think the muscles got so used to producing that sound that when I tried to sing as a tenor, which was a completely different way of singing, I couldn’t sustain the tenor voice.”
Luckily for audiences, he rediscovered his talent. In 1997 Daniels won the coveted and lucrative ($30,000) Richard Tucker award, a prize for rising opera stars that is generally considered the seal of approval for a major vocal career. “That was a big honor, that the [Tucker] foundation heard a countertenor and saw a talent beyond the voice type, especially with Richard Tucker being such a known machismo type of tenor,” he says. With a chuckle, he adds, “It also bought me a houseful of furniture.”
In 1999 Daniels made his much-heralded debut with New York’s Metropolitan Opera as Sesto in Giulio Cesare. (“I don’t remember my debut there,” he says of the demanding experience. “I’ve thought about going into hypnosis to remember it.”) At the New York City Opera he sang the title role of Handel’s Rinaldo, a marathon venture with eight arias, two duets, and batches of tricky roulades. And at the Los Angeles Opera in February, he sang the title role in Giulio Cesare, which Daniels calls “musically my favorite role … although I’d prefer to sing Cleopatra’s music.”
His ideal part, however, is that of Arsace in Handel’s Partenope, which he has sung at the Glimmerglass festival in upstate New York. “It completely plays to my strengths,” he says. “It shows everything from a frivolous kind of party guy to the serious, in-love side of me.” The latter aspect reflects his 16-year relationship with Touchton, with whom he shares a home in Silver Spring, Md. “We are insane about each other,” says Daniels, who is planning a two-month layoff this summer to go to Hawaii and then to Atlanta to watch Braves games with his partner.
In the arena of recording, Daniels has exceeded industry expectations. Last October saw the release of Decca’s Rinaldo, with Daniels sharing top billing with Cecilia Bartoli. Perhaps his crowning glory is his latest CD, Serenade, awarded five stars by BBC Music and named a “Top Ten Vocal CD of Y2K” by Amazon.com. Daniels has also recently signed an exclusive long-term contract with Virgin Classics.
Within the first few seconds of listening to Serenade, it’s quite clear what makes Daniels’s voice inimitably genuine, without any gratuitous belting (although he can certainly do that when needed). “I’m more comfortable when I can bring people in and let them feel what I am feeling,” he says.
Find more on David Daniels (and links to purchase his CDs) at www.advocate.com
Carman also writes for The New York Times.
COPYRIGHT 2001 Liberation Publications, Inc.
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