Last summer, Denyce Graves made her Glimmerglass Festival debut in the world premiere of The Passion of Mary Cardwell Dawson by Sandra Seaton and Carlos Simon. This season, the superstar mezzo-soprano returns as Artist in Residence. In addition to reprising her role in The Passion of Mary Cardwell Dawson, she will make her directorial debut, leading a new co-production of Carmen.
There are few people in this world who know Carmen as intimately as Graves. She made her Metropolitan Opera debut in the title role in 1995 and returned to the Met for two subsequent seasons in different productions of Carmen, a role she has sung at the great opera houses of the world, including Vienna Staatsoper, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, San Francisco Opera, Opéra National de Paris, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Washington National Opera, Bayerische Staatsoper, Arena di Verona, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Opernhaus Zürich, Teatro Real in Madrid, Houston Grand Opera, The Dallas Opera, Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, Los Angeles Opera, and the Festival Maggio Musicale in Florence.
Graves’ extensive repertory also embraces German lieder, French mélodie, English art song, American musical theater, spirituals, and more. She has traveled the world as an official Cultural Ambassador for the United States, spreading goodwill through music, lecture, and seminars. Her spirit of community and engagement continues today through The Denyce Graves Foundation, which uplifts the voices of Black classical musicians both past and present. Graves recently spoke with Assistant Dramaturg Nick Richardson about her many upcoming projects here at the Festival and beyond.
Nick Richardson: How have your thoughts toward Carmen changed over the course of your career?
Denyce Graves: I think the opera is less about Carmen and more about Don José. I think it’s about these parallel universes where he spirals down from the second we see him and she rises up in social stature. The opera could be easily called Don José because – at least the lens that I’m seeing it through – it’s about what happens to him. She remains much more consistent in who she is. She announces that credo in the very beginning, in the habanera, and she stays true to who she is. He’s the one that keeps changing, and he falls from one act to the next.
NR: And that’s what makes an exciting protagonist, really, is to see how they change over the course of the piece.
DG: Oh, yeah. And his change is dramatic.
NG: How does that approach compare with other productions you’ve experienced?
DG: For me, it’s completely different. Or maybe it’s because I’ve been so myopic and just concentrated on my own role that I see it very differently now. [She laughs.] But, you know, Carmen has a great amount of work to do. She has the most work to do of anybody on the stage all night. There’s lots I can say about Carmen. When I write my memoir one of these days, I’ll say it was Carmen who really taught me how to be a woman. I became a woman through having the experience of walking with her.
I have two gigantic regrets, actually. Two gigantic, real sort of heartbreaks about my career: I never recorded Carmen, and I never recorded Dalila. And I did those roles more than anybody! Opportunities would come up and then they would fall through. So having the opportunity to direct Carmen now feels like it closes that gap for me.
NR: How is Carmen relevant to our world today? Why do we need this opera right now?
DG: The reason Carmen is a heroine is because she is proud to be exactly as she is. She’s not judging herself. She’s not censoring herself. She doesn’t care what you think about her. That’s not her business; it’s yours, right? I love the fact that she lives in the moment with complete abandon. That’s what we all want! We all want to be present and not second-guess everything, not judge ourselves, not censor our every movement and everything that we say. She is the. epitome of freedom. She embodies la liberté.
NR: I was just saying to myself, “I wish I could live more like Carmen.”
DG: Exactly! She’s a great example.
NR: What about Don José? What could he teach us today?
DG: What he could teach us today is really about staying the course. He gets into trouble because he keeps trying to make himself into something that he isn’t. Carmen is true to who she is; I would say he isn’t. I think he’s lost. I think he’s trying to find his way, and she’s much more secure. He could learn from her.
NR: Talking about Carmen and who she is makes me think about Mary Cardwell Dawson. In the play, we see some of Dawson’s anxieties and fears, especially in those monologues. “Am I doing the right thing?” “Should I go to the hall?” She asks all these questions, but she always ends with, “No, this is what needs to be done, and I have to be the person to do it.” What is it like to have this sort of character as an ongoing part of your career?
DG: I’m so far from these women! My innate personality is so, so far from these women, but they have shaped me, especially Carmen. Mary Cardwell Dawson, if you think about the 1940s, her audacity to just think, “Ok, so, no one’s hiring me? Then let me create my own company.” And you know that no one was trying to help her. No one wanted her to succeed. What an incredible woman. Most people would never have had the gumption to even try to attempt what she accomplished. But she was born with everything that she needed to run that race. That was already in her. And thank God for her. You and I may not even be speaking now were it not for her. But I do see where you draw the parallels between the two, for sure. Both are incredibly strong women. Queens of their environment. Absolutely focused, grounded, trusting themselves, not looking for any answers outside of themselves, not looking for anybody’s approval. There are many similarities.
NR: Not “behaving,” per se, or not following whatever codes…
NR: “Disruptors.” I like that word. That really resonates with me and where the world is right now.
DG: Oh, and how! I agree with that. That’s what they both are.
NR: The Denyce Graves Foundation is very closely tied with Mary Cardwell Dawson’s legacy today. What work will your Foundation do this year? What are you looking forward to?
DG: Oh my gosh! We’ve got a lot in store! This spring we’ll pilot an initiative with six HBCUs [Historically Black Colleges and Universities] in a consortium with top-tier conservatories. We’ll do an exchange program where we send, for example, a pianist and a coach from Juilliard down to Fisk University to work for one week with the singers, and then have those singers come back to Juilliard for voice lessons and opera coachings. We’ve got another program called Hidden Voices, where we assign up-and-coming artists the name of a forgotten Black musician, and they have to do research on that person and create works of art about them.
We’re modeling a lot of what Mary Cardwell Dawson herself did. She’s the inspiration for everything that’s happening with our Foundation. The purpose is to elevate the lives and the work of singers at all stages of their careers, while honoring the history and the contributions of those who have gone before us.
To learn more about The Denyce Graves Foundation, visit
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