American Diva

On Friday, September 14, 2001, following the tragic events of September 11, mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves was summoned to inspire hope in a grieving nation through song. At the national memorial service held in the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., she gave a heartfelt performance of “America the Beautiful.” The response to her performance that day was overwhelming. “We were unprepared,” said Graves. “I knew the performance was going to be on television, but I thought it was just going to be for Washington. Later, I was talking to my niece, and she said, ‘I saw you on television.’ What? That was on television? I had no clue.”

After the broadcast, Miss Graves’ Web site ( crashed, flooded by responses and requests. “Everybody kept asking if there was a recording, but we didn’t have anything. My husband suggested that we just go ahead and do it, and basically give it away by charging five dollars and donating it to the Red Cross. So that’s what we did.” Simply named Memorial, the CD features “American Anthem,” “America the Beautiful,” and “The Lord’s Prayer.” The songs are not recordings of the original performance at the National Prayer Service; they were newly recorded for the CD and feature arrangements for voice, guitar, and string quartet. “The people asked for that, and that was nice.”

In the following months, Graves rose to a new level as “America’s Voice.” She appeared on Oprah and Larry King Live. She sang both “The Star Spangled Banner” and “God Bless America” during two games of the 2001 World Series at Yankee Stadium, and she was featured in USA Today. Had you turned on your television, you would have found her on QVC, promoting her CD. Proceeds from Memorial went directly to the Liberty Disaster Relief Fund of the American Red Cross, benefiting the thousands of families affected by September 11th.

Graves is no stranger to suffering, and you can hear that when she sings. Born and raised in a Washington, D.C. neighborhood where poverty and struggle were part of everyday life, she developed an understanding of what it takes to be successful. “A lot has come from my experience of being a black woman in America and coming through my family. I know that has impacted me greatly in terms of attitude towards a lot of things. I’m grateful for that. I come from an experience where people had to thrive under the most horrendous circumstances. There were no men, just children and women raising their families the best they could. I grew up in a very dogmatic, fundamentalist Baptist environment, and the women in the church just really believed, no matter what, that God would make a way. This sort of unshakeable faith was important for me to witness on a day-to-day basis. It was becoming part of my foundation, and I would see later how I would be drawn to it, and would draw from it, all the time.”

Graves was not one to call herself “disadvantaged.” On the contrary, she found the exact opposite. “I think that I was advantaged greatly, because so many things in this world didn’t apply to me. Everybody was saying, ‘You have to be X, Y, Z, and this is what we consider beautiful, and this is what’s acceptable, and this is what’s mainstream.’ I wasn’t in the mainstream, and I wasn’t trying to compete with everyone else. I was used to people not expecting a lot from me, so I developed my own experience, and my own inner life. I was operating on a very different level and I believe that gave me a great edge.”

Even as a young woman, Graves stood out from the crowd. “I was the weird girl. I always wanted to be one of the fun and popular girls, but I wasn’t. I didn’t fit in with them. So I was definitely Not Cool. But that taught me early, and helped me to develop who I was.” As a teenager, Graves won admission to the Duke Ellington High School for the Performing Arts. Taunted by other kids, she was endowed with the nickname “Hollywood.” Laughing, Graves said, “One day, somebody said to me, ‘What? You’re studying opera now? Where do you think you are? Hollywood?’” When Graves entered college at Oberlin, it was the first time she had been in a non-black environment. “People were looking at me like, ‘Well who are you? Where did you come from? Why don’t you just go and sing gospel music or something?’ My mother was saying to me, ‘Look, you just gotta get out there and do your best.’”

Doing her best has been a longtime focus for Graves. She finds pleasure in setting and meeting challenges for herself. “My teacher in college once said something to me that I took as a great compliment, and I’ll never forget it. We were discussing the competitive spirit, and she said, ‘Denyce is competitive. But she’s competitive with herself.’ I am really competitive! I mean, we’ll play Pictionary, and Pictionary is a blood sport! I play to win and that’s how it is! (Laughs) But I am competitive with myself more than anything. With all the work that we have to do, if you challenge yourself, you’ve got enough to do.”

For Graves, art and life are all about personal responsibility. “Each person is responsible for everything that happens in their life. I know that someone can do something to you, but you can be responsible for how you respond to that. No matter what happens, I believe that life is about how you manage yourself in all sorts of situations. That’s your job. So what if somebody doesn’t want you for a role? It doesn’t matter; try to see the good. (And I try to see the good.) Use it to your advantage as a human being, to strengthen who you are.”

Graves is convinced that singing is less about voice and talent, and more about who one is as a human being. “How are you able to stand in the face of everything that’s thrown in your path? Will it bring you to your knees, or will it make you stronger? Sometimes it’s both. These aren’t just voice lessons, these are life lessons. I believe that people should take complete responsibility for their lives. If you do that, then you don’t have time to say that it was somebody else’s fault, or that they didn’t pick you because of this or that. It doesn’t matter if you’re black; it doesn’t matter if you’re white. It doesn’t matter if you’re fat; it doesn’t matter if you’re thin. If that type of thing becomes the issue for you, then it will become the issue for others as well. You will create that, and that will be your experience.”

Graves’ competitive spirit has served her well. She has taken her interpretations to higher levels by removing her ego from the equation and allowing the music to happen. “All of the training and all of the study is so important. Even now, I’m going to my voice lessons all the time, and my voice teacher (Margaret Baroody in Philadelphia) is able to travel with me. But I realize that we are in the perfection business. We are trained to examine every single note that we make. Sometimes I have performances and it feels great and I’m in The Zone. But more often than not I think, ‘Oh I could’ve done this, or I should’ve done that, or that could’ve been better.’

“At some point, you just have to start singing. Be aware of and work on those things that you need to work on, and try to have each performance be better. Sharpen and polish who you are. But in the meantime, the experience is happening, and I don’t think that you can afford—as an artist or as a singer—to disconnect and not have your heart involved in the experience. At the end of the day, that’s really what people respond to. I try to be honest in everything, and if I fall technically short in some things, then I do. I know what I’m working on. The main things is to keep the truth there.”

Part of “keeping the truth” for Graves is knowing and respecting her body’s needs. “All of my friends know to disappear the night before a performance, and on a performance day. I’ve been doing this for some time now, so they understand, and I don’t have to explain myself to them. I e-mail a lot. E-mail was invented for singers!”

Most recently, Graves has emerged from a personally trying period in her life. “Last season was a very difficult one for me,” she said. “I was very sick—in and out of the hospital several times—and I had to cancel nearly the entire season. I had all sorts of problems, and I had to have all sorts of surgeries. One of the problems I had, which caused internal bleeding, was called occipital neuralgia. It’s when a nerve in the brain goes into spasms. You can’t control it, and it left me completely crippled. I could not function.”

Through a series of events, Graves was led to a nutritionist, who determined that Graves needed an intense cleaning of her liver and pancreas. “She came to work with me when I was in Houston, for five days. She started me on a whole new ‘change-your-life, change-your-diet’ lifestyle regime. The first four days was just detoxifying and no eating. Then I moved into a solid stage of fruits and vegetables. Now I’m in stage three, where I can have one piece of white fish a day. This goes on for six months. I have all sorts of anti-oxidants, herbs, and supplements which really clean out my system, because I was on a lot of medication. It’s like a rebirthing, a cleansing thing. It’s hard, but I’ve completely changed everything.”

Exercise, which was a large part of her routine, was also restricted. “I wasn’t really allowed to work out [in a conventional sense] during certain stages. The nutritionist had a theory that [conventional] exercise caused the body to exert energy. She wanted me to do things like yoga, which replenished the energy and the body, so I was doing yoga and Pilates. This works with singing because it supports everything that we’ve learned. I’m back to my regular workouts now, in addition to the yoga and Pilates. I try to drink a lot of water and I try to rest a lot.”

Graves has a special affinity for young singers and demonstrates this with heavy recital and master class commitments. In fact, her schedule is filled with more recitals than anything else. “Everywhere I go to give recitals, I piggyback master classes with them. My master classes are very, very different because they’re not those rip-you-apart, break-your-spirit type of classes. I absolutely abhor those! What I try to do is inspire the students and make them excited about music-making and about their own instrument. I try to create an atmosphere where they feel free to explore in front of a lot of people. I don’t talk about technique. Instead, I try to say things from an interpretive standpoint, and a lot of times the technical problems fix themselves.”

For a young singer entering the professional world, attitude is key. “It doesn’t matter where you sing—if it’s an ‘A’ house or a ‘Z’ house—it doesn’t matter if it’s the worst possible situation. You bring the best to it from your side. When you’re in a conservatory you may think, ‘Oh, gee, when I get out it’s going to be great. When I sing here, or when I sing there, or when I’m working with great people at a professional level.’ But more often than not, it’s chaotic. You’re NOT singing in the best situations, nor are you singing your best. You’re not going to be judged on your best singing, you’re going to be judged on your average singing. You’ve got to work in a way that brings your average singing above everyone else’s. If you’re really concentrating on your own stuff, you don’t have the time or energy to worry about everyone else. You really don’t.”

The passion and focus Graves teaches younger singers was instilled in her while studying under the masterful hand of John Moriarty. “John is a master. Everything that I learned about being on stage and dissecting music, I learned from sitting in classes and watching him work with my colleagues. That was a great education for me in terms of finding the love in music, the humor in music, the heartache, and hearing it also in the different voices in the orchestra, the different colors and lines. John really gave me that awareness. When working with younger singers, I have found that when you put your concentration there [on the human and emotional content of the music], it creates more joy and more freedom. I think the voice cannot help but reflect and respond if you’re 100 percent committed to what you’re singing.”

When Graves was an apprentice with Houston Grand Opera program, she participated in opera outreach programs in the community. “I gained a huge education from singing the same thing three or four times a day. We would sing and talk about opera in prisons, community centers, and schools. There was nothing like performing for a bunch of five-year-olds to let you know how committed you have to be. If it’s not working and they don’t believe you, you will know! That was so important for me, to learn how to get their attention and to learn the level of commitment that it takes. I believe that the stage is a magnifying glass; whatever it is that you do or don’t believe in, that’s augmented in front of people. The moment your mind checks out and you think, ‘Oh, my feet hurt,’ or ‘There’s my sister over there,’ you break the thread. The moment you check out, so does everybody else—and they don’t know why. But they start looking for that piece of candy at the bottom of their purse. I challenge myself all the time. It’s hard! It’s like meditation! You realize how much energy it takes to just focus on one thing.”

Since her remarkable performance at the National Memorial Service, Denyce Graves has inspired thousands, sharing her love for music and the craft of performing. “A lot of things inspire me. I’m inspired by music itself because I really do believe that it comes from another dimension. I believe that it’s a gift to us. Those of us who participate in it, those of us who are a vestibule for it—whatever the position is—I believe that all the players are needed. In that year that I wasn’t singing, I never felt like I was not singing—the music was such a part of me. It’s in my genetic fabric—it is part of who I am, and whether I sing or not, it doesn’t matter. Whether people hear it or not, it doesn’t matter, because I was hearing it. There was music inside of my head, and I never felt like I was disconnected from the source of it. I was still humming along my way, and learning and discovering material during that process, so I was never hungry for it. It was devastating—I don’t want to diminish that—but after I moved through it, there was a different kind of birth within me, and music sang within me, in a very different way.”

K. J. Leeda

Born on Christmas Eve, K.J. Leeda is pleased to join the ranks of other notable writers for Classical Singer magazine. K.J. had a childhood fantasy to be a writer, however such novel considerations were abandoned in order to pursue a degree in vocal performance. As a result, K.J.’s vocabulary is not as sententious as desired; an unfortunate fact to which colleagues can attest. Many thanks are in order to the editor (and for affording K.J. the opportunity to contribute to this publication as a genuine freelance writer. K.J. resides in New York City