An Interview with Denyce Graves

An Interview with Denyce Graves

Denyce Graves is a pillar of the opera community. She is changing hearts and changing minds through both incredible career accomplishments as well as the work she is doing through The Denyce Graves Foundation. 


Founded in 2021, The Denyce Graves Foundation stands at the crossroads of social justice, American history, and the arts to celebrate artistic excellence while telling the stories of performers and composers of color whose accomplishments have been hidden and ignored for far too long. Believing that now is the time to increase our nation’s commitment to its artists, both past and present, DGF pays homage to the achievements of so many who have gone before while serving the real needs of today’s emerging artist singers. DGF is giving back and paying it forward at the same time. 

Since 2022, it has been my privilege to coordinate DGF’s Shared Voices program, one of its three pillars, committed to creating a more equitable classical vocal arts landscape that more accurately represents the rich tapestry of our nation. I sat down with Ms. Graves to talk about her life, her career, and her foundation.

Since your Met debut in 1995, you have been recognized as one of the elite opera singers of your generation. What do you want the readers of Classical Singer Magazine to know about you that hasn’t been widely shared? 

I would say that it hasn’t been easy. It’s all been, I believe, led by God. And that I really feel like now I’m coming into a place where I can do the work that’s really meaningful to me. So those different answers speak to three different things. The career itself has never been easy; it’s always been a lot of work. And a lot of things that have happened in my life seem to have been out of my control.

What do you mean out of your control?

Well, I stopped singing in 1988 and was on a very different path. I had won the Met auditions, and then they had uncovered these health issues that were causing problems for me to sing, problems for me to exist, so I cancelled the contracts I had and quit singing. I was working for Warren Hanson as a secretary and I hadn’t sung for a year but I kept getting calls from Houston Grand Opera, asking me to come sing for them. I kept saying no, but the third time they called, Shauna Bowman, who was running the HGO program said, “Listen, we know you’re not singing any more, but would you be interested in just coming down and singing for us?” I asked to think about it for a day and she said yes. 

That night I had a dream that I’d gone to see my doctor and I told him that I couldn’t sing. He said to me, “Just sing something.” I started singing in the dream, and people were coming into the exam room saying, “Oh, what a lovely voice.” I called HGO the next day and said, “OK, I’m coming.” And that was when things took a completely different turn—the same way with the creation of The Foundation [DGF]. That was not something that I thought I was doing, but the universe had other plans. 

All of these things that I’ve been guided into and led into—it’s been my greatest surprise and joy, but none of it has been easy. It’s all been incredibly efforted, has taken great intention, and the cost has been great. The career and all of the wonderful things that have happened throughout 40-something years on the stage and meeting the different people that I’ve met has been one of the greatest joys and surprises and rewards. I would say that it’s always been work. It’s been a gift, and the rewards have been wonderful. 

Tell us about the impact the role of Carmen has had on your career and your life.

I’ve had a big experience with the role of Carmen. I don’t think that was by accident. I think that was completely by design. My experiences with Carmen started at Houston Grand Opera. Adria Firestone was singing Carmen and I was covering; I was singing the role of Mercedes, But the very first time I sang Carmen was with Minnesota Opera. From there it was the Vienna State Opera; when Agnes Baltsa cancelled, I was called to sing with José Carreras. When Marilyn Horne had to have knee surgery, I was called to San Fracisco Opera. So that part really catapulted overnight, and then there were offers just coming one after another after that. Fortunately, at Minnesota I had done the dialogue version, but that was the hardest thing I had to do—and to learn to play the castanets, to dance, to really get French in my mouth. All of those different things conditioned and prepared me for the road in front of me. 



This popular opera, filled with wonderful melodies—people will always come see it because it’s a timeless story. But my experience with this woman, I believe she was crafting and shaping me the whole time and turning me into the woman that I am today. It’s my walk with her that really led me to stand up for myself, and it has taken years of me walking in her skin, or wearing the robe, the façade of who she is, that has given me the courage to become the person that I have become, shaping who I am. 

I was a shy, scared, quiet, and awkward young girl, and I love that Carmen’s music ended up taking me to places that I never would have imagined. My particular journey with this one woman who would have a lot of say and give me the courage to say no and to stand up for things that were not right for me—I don’t think that was an accident. 

On September 14, 2001, yours became a voice of comfort when you sang at the Washington National Cathedral National Prayer Service, only three days after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Can you share with us your recollections of that day?

I’m from Washington, D.C., I have a relationship with Washington National Cathedral, and I’ve sung there many times. Sometimes if they were having a special service, a dedication for a new window or something like that, they would ask me to sing. When 9/11 happened, I got a call from the Cathedral asking if I would come and sing for a service. I just thought it was a normal service like I had done in the past. Fortunately [that’s all I thought it was]. And I got there, and I prepared, and I was ready—and we were all stunned and shocked, and I was standing there singing and I saw President Carter, President Clinton, and President George W. Bush. I had no idea. I had heard that there might be some dignitaries there. I thought I was just going to sing a service like I had done in the past. Thank God I [hadn’t] truly realize the magnitude of the service on September 14. 

The calls that I got! I got calls from President Clinton, President Carter, saying that they so enjoyed the performance. People were calling me from Europe. I had no idea of the reach of that service. That was an amazing moment in the career that changed the trajectory in an enormous way. And that was a moment that I was proud to be an American, proud to be an African American, proud to be a woman, proud to be from Washington, D.C. 

We often see you with your mother. What is it like to share these experiences with her?

There have been many moments when I have felt tremendously honored, but I was also proud of my mom because she came along at a very different time in history. My mother is a very shy, soft-spoken woman. And there were many things that she wanted to do in her life. She was a single mother with three children and she had to work three jobs to take care of us. We saw and watched every day what that was like for her. And then to have one of her children up there on an international stage, I actually felt happier for my mother in that moment than for myself. Because she never had the opportunity, as we say, to have her flowers. 

When I’m with her I notice how proud she is, “This is my daughter the opera singer.” I am so happy for her because she is a spectacular mom, and I believe that those successes are much larger than me. I just happen to be the face at that time, but it’s much bigger than who I am.

There is a beautiful portrait of you at the National Portrait Gallery.  

That was just completely luck. Dodge Thompson (Chief of Exhibitions) wanted to do a picture for the portrait gallery of a young artist that was at the height of their career with [portrait artist] Nelson Shanks, who was at the height of his career, so I was chosen just like that. And in that moment, I was so proud too, because when we talk about the work of The Foundation, we talk about Black history, we talk about it being lost, about it being an oral history. What made me so proud about being chosen for that project is that I thought, “We’ve got a marker” and someday maybe my great-great-great-great grandchildren will say, “This is my great-great-great-great grandmother, and her name was Denyce, and she was an opera singer, and this is what she did.” 

It begins to anchor us in some way and give us a point of reference and preserves a part of history. That’s the kind of stuff that I get a great amount of satisfaction and fulfillment from. What it means to my family, to the race, to have that documentation there, so that we don’t become some of these hidden figures that we talk about at The Foundation that we want to uncover and celebrate their wonderful work and their wonderful contributions to the country. 

In 2021 you premiered the title role in The Passion of Mary Cardwell Dawson, founder of the National Negro Opera Company. Why is this project so important to you, our country, and The Foundation?

The creation, coming together, and the focusing in on Mary Cardwell Dawson and other hidden figures like her was the result of a perfect storm. The world had our attention, we were all quieted [due to the pandemic], and we were watching the unfolding of events in the country and around the world. It was an amazing time, and those images and the events that were happening were speaking to all of us. I was also looking at the young people protesting the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and everything that was unfolding, and it seemed that everything was coming to a great crescendo.

Simultaneously I had found out about this American impresaria—this pioneer, trail blazer, opera director, founder, and funder of the National Negro Opera Company. We were all really looking at what was going on in the world, but for a lot of people, to see some of the things themselves with their own eyes in real time was a revelation. 

When we start looking at parts of our history that have been hidden and ignored, that speaks directly to the social justice piece that is one of the tenants of The Foundation. We’ve been told a lopsided story, one that is untrue, not inclusive. And it’s hard to come back around and correct that, because people sometimes don’t want to believe that there are great parts of our history that we just don’t know about. Change is sometimes hard to accept. 


We haven’t been told a story that is truthful, accurate, fair—and it has led to the perpetuation of these myths that keep us divided, that creates an us and them scenario. So, when we look at the refined arts—especially opera, which is an amalgamation of all the fine arts and is considered to be the highest art form—the untrue story is that Black people are not considered to be in that category. Now, if you tell people that a Black woman was considered to be the impresaria and the first lady of opera in this country, your head pops off. 

All of the time that I came into this profession wanting to sing and being told that I don’t belong here, the whole time the godmother of it was maybe one of my ancestors. So why is Mary Cardwell Dawson and those like her important? Because we begin to look at ourselves and the world that we live in completely differently. It’s a new day. It’s a different story. And why was she left out? That was intentional, that was on purpose.

So how can people hear and believe the truthful story? They can hear it through art. That allows the judgmental mind to stop and recognize beauty. When we say educating is activism, we’re telling the stories of great individuals who have made the country what it is, who have contributed to our cultural fabric, but we just didn’t know who they were. And for some people it might be hard to accept that that person is an African American. 

I fully acknowledge that some people want to keep the club of refined art to the few. I understand that. But that’s the problem. So that’s the social justice piece of what The Foundation is doing. That’s why Mary Cardwell Dawson and so many others like her are so incredibly, vitally important to the healing of our nation. There are certain characters that are helping us tell the story in bite sizes that people can receive, and I think bit by bit we’re changing hearts and we’re changing minds, and that’s the work we’re doing at DGF. 

What final thoughts do you want to share with our readers?

I realized when I started teaching that it was more about life lessons than voice lessons. I knew that my students were looking at me for guidance on how to become a woman, a generous human being, an artist—to be someone who is balancing personal life and professional life. I know that whether they sing or not, my work was to come into their lives as a human being, to show them what it means to give yourself to someone, be more concerned with someone else than yourself, be invested in their development [and] in their success, and to genuinely feel that. I want to be a person who is kind to other human beings. That is my conscious intent throughout my every day. 

I think what is sorely needed for our troubled world to start healing is kindness. That is the thing that touches me the deepest, the strongest, the most immediately. And I see that what people need—as we all walk around with our unspeakable wounds and traumas, what life does to everybody—is kindness. 


Learn more about The Denyce Graves Foundation at

Liana Valente

Dr. Liana Valente is the Denyce Graves Foundation Shared Voices program coordinator ( Prior to joining DGF, she enjoyed a 30-year career teaching all aspects of the classical vocal arts at colleges and universities along the East Coast including at Knoxville College, Wesleyan College, University of South Florida, Rollins College, and Howard University. She continues to perform, presents at national and international conferences, and focuses her current research on improving the quality of life for older persons through music participation. Since 2016, Dr. Valente has served as the National Federation of Music Clubs Representative to the United Nations Department of Global Communications.