The Second Act
After humble beginnings, Denyce Graves rocketed to fame in the opera world. Now, after moving from Paris to Bethesda, she's launching a new phase of her life.
Opera diva Denyce Graves is padding around her Bethesda kitchen in jeans and a pair of well-worn clogs, singing in Italian under her breath as she searches for a wire whisk to make mango juice spritzers. The Washington, D.C.-born mezzo-soprano, who rocketed to fame in the 1990s with sultry signature roles in Carmen and Samson et Dalila, moved into a house on Bradley Boulevard in September of 2008, after eight years in Paris. “My best girlfriend from Switzerland helped put the kitchen things away, and she put them where she thought they should go,” Graves says. “If you think this room is chaotic, don’t go in the basement.”
In fact, her kitchen looks sunny and pretty, but lived in, as if meals are actually prepared and eaten there. Graves says she loves to cook, and finds grocery shopping soothing—she particularly likes Balducci’s in the Wildwood Shopping Center. “Bethesda feels good to me—everything’s five minutes away,” she says, her accent faintly French, her conversation sprinkled with “voilàs.” Graves says she chose the area because it’s near Lycée Rochambeau, the French school her 4-year-old daughter, Ella, attends, as well as a reasonable commute for her husband, Robert Montgomery, chief transplant surgeon at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore (more reasonable, she amends, than a flight to Paris).
Although Bethesda has its share of celebrities, they tend to be Washington Week in Review types, and the notion of running into an opera star at the supermarket is dazzling. With her arresting beauty, tumble of brown curls and low, thrilling voice, Graves can’t help but make a grand entrance, even in jeans, at her own house.
Graves has stood out all her life, but not always in a way that pleased her. When she was growing up (as “Denise”) on Galveston Street in Southwest Washington, D.C., neighborhood kids called the shy girl “Hollywood” because of her perceived aloofness. Her alcoholic father left the family when she was a toddler, leaving her mother, Dorothy Graves-Kenner, to raise their son and two daughters. Graves-Kenner worked first in a laundry and then as a typist at the University of the District of Columbia, where she eventually became registrar. Graves says her mother was loving but strict, and that life at home revolved around homework, chores and church. Pop music was forbidden. “I was the difficult middle child,” Graves says with a smile, adding that one of her transgressions was secretly listening to Michael Jackson on the radio. All three siblings had beautiful singing voices, Graves says, and they performed gospel songs at local churches and meeting halls. “My brother sang all the solos in our little family group,” Graves recalls, “and one day he got sick and couldn’t sing. My mother said, ‘Denise, you have to do it,’ and I said, ‘I can’t.’ And she said, ‘You have to.’ And that was the beginning of something.”
On her weepy first day of kindergarten at Patterson Elementary School in D.C., Graves latched onto the music teacher, Judith Grove, who calmed her by playing the piano. Grove became a “guardian angel,” Graves says, encouraging her to join the all-city youth chorus and even driving her to and from rehearsals. “Denyce’s mother worked long hours and didn’t want her children involved in any foolishness, but she trusted me,” says Grove, who is now retired and lives in Temple Hills, Md.
When Graves entered Friendship Middle School, Grove became the music teacher there. One day, she took Graves and other students to a dress rehearsal of Beethoven’s opera Fidelio at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Graves, then 14, was transfixed, and Grove urged her to audition for admission into the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in the District’s Georgetown neighborhood. Graves was accepted, and she began her freshman year in the fall of 1978. Coincidentally, Grove became the school’s assistant principal at the same time.
Surrounded by like-minded students at Duke Ellington, Graves thrived and says she no longer felt like a “space alien.” She recalls the day a friend, Cassandra Cunningham, pulled her into the listening library to hear a recording of African-American soprano Leontyne Price singing Puccini arias. “We stayed in there for the rest of the day,” Graves says. “We didn’t eat, we didn’t drink—we played those recordings over and over until the school shut down. That was a pivotal moment in my life. Here was this woman who sang the most beautiful music I’d ever heard. How could she make those sounds? We wanted to become like her.”
“Denyce sang about 10 songs for her senior recital,” Grove recalls. “When I heard her, I said, ‘Oh, my goodness,’ and tears came to my eyes.”
Graves completed high school in three years, and in the spring of 1981, she was accepted into the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music in Ohio, but she was offered only a partial scholarship. Grove decided to approach her church, Zion Baptist on Blagden Avenue, with an appeal for help: “I said, ‘I want to tell you about a student who is the next Leontyne Price, and she must not fall through the cracks.’ And they leaped on it, based on my word alone.” Contributions from Zion Baptist’s charitable organization, the Charles B. Walker Culture Club, as well as scholarship donations from the D.C. Freemasons, helped Graves to be able to afford Oberlin, Grove says.
Grove says that as her protégée prepared to leave for college, Graves asked if she also would be going to Oberlin. “I said, ‘No, girl, you’re on your own now.’ ”
Graves entered Oberlin in the fall of 1981. There, she scrubbed pots and took on other campus jobs to make ends meet. She became the student of renowned voice teacher Helen Hodam, who, according to Graves, once chided her for distorting her voice by laughing with friends the night before a lesson. When Hodam moved to the New England Conservatory in Boston at the end of Graves’ sophomore year, Graves followed her, working as an office cleaner and a night desk clerk at a hotel to support herself. One evening, stopping at an ATM on her way home from a lesson at Hodam’s house, it registered how broke she was. “At that time, you could take as little as $5 out, and when I did that, I had $5 left,” she says. “I was looking at all the stickers that told what cards were compatible with the machine, and one of them was NYCE. I started saying to myself, neece, De-nyce. And I wanted the karma of my name to be the embodiment of wealth. So I called my mom and said, ‘I’m still going to be Denise, but I’m going to change the spelling.’ ”
In 1986, Graves entered the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. The auditions give aspiring opera singers an opportunity to be heard by representatives of the Metropolitan Opera and also to win cash prizes. Graves was desperate to win. “I was four months behind in my rent,” she later told The New York Times. “I couldn’t even pay for the rented dress I was wearing” in the competition. She made it to the finals in New York City, but had to withdraw when her voice gave out. The voice problem eventually was diagnosed as a treatable thyroid condition, but Graves was so discouraged that she got a job as a secretary and didn’t sing again for a year.
But Graves’ performance early in the competition had created a buzz about the young woman with the voice that brought listeners to tears. The Houston Grand Opera called a few months later to invite her to audition for its young artists program. Still smarting from her previous disappointment, she declined. The HGO called two more times. Finally, Graves says, friends persuaded her that the calls were a sign that she was meant to sing, and she accepted.
The audition went well, and Graves spent the next three years in Houston, setting her on a path to stardom. Performing the role of Emilia in a production of Verdi’s Otello, she met Spanish tenor Plácido Domingo, who became an early supporter and mentor. “What impressed me immediately about her, aside from her obvious vocal and physical beauty, was an aura of the dramatic about her,” Domingo told The New York Times in 1995.