Natalie Dessay: Opera is an art of the past

Natalie Dessay: Opera is an art of the past


norman lebrecht

March 27, 2017

The French soprano does not believe that opera can relate to modern times – despite her husband earning rave reviews this month in a world premiere.

Interview with Forum Opéra here.

Je me suis souvent sentie en décalage, à part, car je ne me suis jamais considérée comme chanteuse mais comme une comédienne qui chantait. Dans le monde de l’opéra, j’ai toujours été mal à l’aise, une étrangère en fait. J’ai pourtant beaucoup aimé faire ce métier mais sans jamais perdre conscience que  c’était un art du passé, un monde clos, et je pensais : mais quelle raison peut-on avoir aujourd’hui de chanter sans micro ?!  Sauf de faire vivre un répertoire en étant écartelé entre le musée et la nouvelle lecture.

Q. Pourtant Laurent Naouri fait un succès dans Trompe-la-mort, la création de Francesconi à Garnier. Comme quoi, il y a quand même du renouvellement à l’Opéra.

C’est vrai, certaines œuvres modernes pourront passer à la postérité, comme celles de Thomas Adès ou John Adams, mais elles sont extrêmement rares et ne viennent pas infirmer l’idée que l’opéra est un art qui n’a pas su se renouveler.

Read on here.


  • John Borstlap says:

    Apparently, she has fallen for the myth that music is locked-up in the box of history. But she forgets that music comes to life every time it is performed and for that reason, is always contemporary.

  • Save the MET says:

    Perhaps explains her endless cancellations and an excuse for her vocal problems while singing in opera.

    • MWnyc says:

      Her vocal problems were, I think, because she was bound and determined not to be a typical “French teakettle soprano” (as a friend of mine puts it) and pushed her voice too hard.

      (Note: I myself don’t dismiss the old-style French soprano sound as “teakettle”, and neither does my friend, really. But the expression does capture some of the stereotyping that I think Dessay was determined not to get trapped by.)

  • Ungeheuer says:

    She is partly right but I fully agree with John Borstlap above. Ultimately, it is her who is in the past tense. Never understood why the pixie became adored by some members of the opera going public.

  • DAVID says:

    The issue is not whether opera is a thing of the past, but whether it still can speak to us today and have a lasting claim. Many things of the past are still quite relevant to our times — perhaps so more than ever before — and in some cases prove to be even more relevant the older they are (one could think for instance of Greek tragedy, which of late has shown to be rather contemporaneous). The idea that we might jettison anything not seemingly relevant to the present would simply do away with culture as a whole, as in such a process we would be deprived of most literature, arts, and classical music, since the bulk of their significant output is indeed a product of the past. The real issue here is whether our time still has an ear and a mind — a proposition rather doubtful in a time of shortened attention spans and profound resistance to anything requiring even a modicum of effort in order to be appreciated and understood.

    • John Borstlap says:

      All that is true….. but it should also be seen from the perspective of the liberation / emancipation of the masses. Modern democratic society has made the arts accessible and available to most people while in the past, after the Greek plays which were community events, the arts were a thing of an elite. This seems to be a good thing, but when the forces in society are driven mainly by numbers, cultural quality inevitably erodes. Instead of elevating the masses, the arts have fallen victim to the barbarism of the ignorant. So, when cultural value has to be restored, ‘the past’ is the treasure trove of renewal, not the dustbin of modernity. The culture of the past has become the much-needed medicine for the ills of modernity, offering a compensating experience:

      • Jackie says:

        It’s always easier to blame the masses for not understanding us than to take a good, hard look at ourselves. “the barbarism of the ignorant.” I cannot think of a more condescending statement and explanation for why the regular person just doesn’t get us (or opera). Oh, it’s the video games / reality TV / smartphones / social media / fast food / terrible education / violence on television. People used to have better attention spans / more appreciation for the obscure / education was better / there was no instant gratification available as easily as today, blah blah blah…

        No, the issue is that some of our product sucks, and we need to think of how to make work better for our most likely potential audience. This I believe is the college educated in their 30s and 40s who have sophisticated tastes, appreciate the artisanal and the rarefied, like theater / modern art / film, are well traveled, get involved in social causes, but still don’t go to classical music concerts. This is millions and millions of people who no one can accuse of being barbarians. But they prefer Bon Iver or Radiohead, because that’s what speaks to them (and that music has plenty of sophistication to admire).

        Not opera with ridiculous plots, sung in languages they can’t understand, with wobbling pitches of unknown frequency, with productions they grandparents might have liked when Truman was President – all in all, a nice experience that you can live without.

        As they say, to change the world, sometimes you have to change yourself.

        • John Borstlap says:

          A good example of the problem….. it is, however, not the art (in this case, opera) that should adapt to modern times, but education that explains its value. Adaptation of ‘old’ art to ‘modernity’ always results in falsification and disappearance of the content. In this typical egalitarian comment the very barbarism of the uneducated shows its ugly head, disguised in quasi-leftwing language: if the ignorant doesn’t undertand something, don’t explain it to him, but ask what he wants himself, because otherwise it would be elitist, authoritarian, arrogant, etc.

        • Peter Berning says:

          “…all in all, a nice experience that you can live without. ”
          You obviously can, and for a simpleton ( based on your statements regarding opera ) that is to be expected.
          But please don’t speak for people who are not as populist, lowest common degree driven as you are. Your expertise falls way short here.

          • Jackie says:

            Not sure why ad hominem attacks are necessary. Perhaps your expertise can’t do better? Disagreeing means I am a simpleton? I ridiculed a certain possible and all-too-familiar scenario of how opera is performed these days to make a point. I have been to hundreds of performances in Vienna, the Met, Houston, LA, and uh, this happens.

            In general, this exchange proves that the biggest enemies to classical music are in our ranks. It’s not the ignorant, they don’t care. It’s the insistence that what we are doing is fine, and that the problems are in others. Yet the attendance and our place in contemporary society are shrinking little by little every year.

            When is music education going to catch up to what it “should” be to explain and create classical music audiences from a young age, which is apparently the only way to go forward? Is there a single chance anywhere that this should happen? Do you know of any politician, any initiative in a single education budget of a developed country that such a program will be put in place to serve millions of children regardless of educational and income level? So they understand the sophistication of what classical music from a young age in order for some of them to become lifelong concertgoers?

            I didn’t think so. I am suggesting a Plan B, to work with what’s there and try to make something out of it, to explore other avenues for our art to be heard, but all there is is vitriol of the most hideous kind.

          • John Borstlap says:

            To Jacky:

            These are fair points. But people defending the art form are not necessarily thinking that ‘all is fine’ in the field, in contrary. Norman has already rung quite some alarm bells in his books and, if I compare that with my own experiences, rightly so.

            In countries with quite some musical tradition as part of their national identity, like Germany and Austria, there are enough educational projects and enough politicians making a point about music education. But there is not always awareness of what is helpful and what is not (Holger Noltze: ‘Die Leichtigkeitslüge’, exposing the fallacy in music education programs that classical music is nice, hip and easy). In Germany there are even projects to get young children embracing Klangkunst, pure sonic art, in an attempt to create new audiences…. and it is ‘sold’ as ‘new music’, as a further development of classical music, or as an introduction to ‘the old forms’ of music. Much money is spent on such criminal undertakings the nature of which is not understood. So, if the nature of the art form is not understood, educational programs are sure to misfire.

            One of the main problems is the populism which is on the rise in every field. Accepting egalitarian thinking in an attempt to preserve classical music for the future is by definition counterproductive and self-defeating, so: warning and criticizing is not the result of thinking that everything in the field is OK but, in contrary, the opposite, that the field has become truly fragile and needs an injection of energy and good ideas and especially, distinctions, to get really effective educational programs on the rails.

            Politicians in Germany and now also in France (Macron) seem to get something understood.

  • Paul Davis says:

    A rather superficial interview with generalisations and some inaccuracies. I’m happy she considers herself “an actress who sings”…id’ve certainly put her voice first and the acting a long way behind. The comment about singing with with micofone is hard to believe; surely the essence of the voice is what we hear directly, the amplified effect distorts and reduces individual quality. It’s true her recent years have been marred by vocal troubles. I was surprose to read of lieder “never recorded by a woman,” as i distinctly remember the 78rpm in my father’s collection, of Erlkönig, sung by Lotte Lehmann.

  • Pianofortissimo says:

    ‘… je ne me suis jamais considérée comme chanteuse mais comme une comédienne qui chantait.’ – yes, and she should keep to the Francophone repertoire where she can excel in her dramatic capacity.

  • Mihail Ghiga says:

    A realist view. Art has changed, cultural capital is no longer what it was. The future is for a hybridisations of genres and styles. There is only a limited amount of public money to be spent and too many artists arround, will survive those which adapt and attract private funds.

    • John Borstlap says:

      A more realist view would be to understand modern society as a pluralist culture where there should be place for any genre, including high art. Given the high quality of so much art of the past and the quite meagre substance of an overwhelming amount of contemporary art, this pluralist society does need a strong dosis of ‘the past’ to stay alive, since there is not much art of today that can take-on that function. It is quite silly when practitioners of opera say what they do does not relate to modern times, they should be happy that modern times do not relate well to opera. That is why modern times do need opera.

  • MWnyc says:

    I’ve always liked Natalie Dessay, and in some roles I’ve loved her. But I’ve always found her I’m-the-only-one-in-the-opera-world-who-cares-about-good-acting pose to be self-aggrandizing and tiresome, not to mention wrong.

  • Trevor Lynes says:

    Opera has become far more popular over the past few years and many bright, new singers with fine acting techniques have dusted the cobwebs and begun a new era.
    This began with the emergence of Netrebko who electrified the stage with her voice and presence.
    She still packs the houses everywhere she sings and now her voice has allowed her to sing the meatier roles like Lohengrin, Manon Lescaut, Macbeth and Aida etc etc.
    There are now many younger sopranos like Sonyeva who have picked up the torch to ensure opera remains in tune with modernity.
    HD has brought it to the masses and rekindled the spark.
    Dessay and Fleming have been fabulous opera singers but unfortunately their voices did not mature enough for the dramatic roles.
    But opera will continue to develop and attract legions of new fans in my opinion.
    Natalie was being a bit arrogant in her opinions by writing it off as dormant…it is NOT !