A scene from an Old Master greets me when I arrive, walking past rows of wellingtons, trainers and football boots in the hall, to interview Danielle de Niese – the Sri Lankan, Melbourne-born, Los Angeles-raised soprano who is married to Gus Christie, chairman of Glyndebourne and grandson of the opera house’s founder. She is sitting in the shadows, at the head of a big old table in the kitchen, breastfeeding her dark-haired baby boy, Bacchus, who was born two months earlier. Her skin gleams in the shadows, and she is all bosom, huge expressive eyes and the broadest of grins.
De Niese has been enjoying herself performing the Ravel double bill, as the saucy Concepción in L’heure espagnole and, in a spectacular shape-shift, a sturdy little boy in L’enfant et les sortilèges. She describes this as her “Meryl Streep moment”; her chance to transform herself and step into a completely different character: “I’m stepping into a new era of my career, where I’m not going to be put in a box.” She is captivating in both roles and it is, indeed, uncanny to see such a sexy woman – the Beyoncé of opera – become a convincingly brattish boy.
Her next gig is the Last Night of the Proms – switching between the Proms in the Park stage in Hyde Park and the flag-waving fervour of the Albert Hall. In the Hall she’ll be singing a medley from The Sound of Music. Of course she watched it as a child in Melbourne (as she did, indeed, the Proms): “Totally,” she says in her Valley Girl twang, “I know every song” – she starts yodelling The Lonely Goatherd and segues into a very Julie Andrews-esque “Somewhere in my wicked, miserable youth…”
Her own youth was filled with music competitions, talent shows, musical theatre, TV appearances and commercials. De Niese’s mother, Beverly, a mixed-race Sri Lankan, is musical herself and was always singing to her baby girl. She has cassettes of Danielle at the age of one, already sounding as though she were four. On YouTube, there’s a recording of an eight-year-old de Niese – belting out Tomorrow from Annie with the power of a full-grown diva (below).
At five, she started singing and dancing classes at talent school, and studied music theory from the age of seven. Her family moved to Los Angeles to support what was clearly going to be a significant singing career. By the time she was 19 she was at the Metropolitan Opera, singing Barbarina in The Marriage of Figaro with Cecilia Bartoli and Renée Fleming.
Her life-changing moment (or at least one of them) came when she stepped into the role of Cleopatra, in Handel’s Giulio Cesare at Glyndebourne, when the original singer dropped out. De Niese was 26, and bowled over the audience and reviewers – putting, as one critic wrote, “the sex in Sussex”. The newly divorced chairman, and father of four teenage sons, fell in love with opera’s new darling, and the couple married five years later.
“What we have in common is that we’re both incredibly comfortable in our own skin,” she says. She is, I have to say, the most sensuous person I’ve ever interviewed. She takes her long curtain of hair, pulls it to one side and strokes it as though it were velvet.
Did she ever experience racism growing up in Australia, or since? “Even if there was racism, my parents would have sheltered me from it. You know, I was never held back. I’m aware of racism now but I’ve never felt that it is something that has ever limited me. I don’t even see colour, in a funny way. I think music, like sport, sees things more democratically. Talent is talent.”
She is not, she says, keen on quotas for women, quite the contrary. “I just think if you’re good, you’ll rise to the top, but there are some biases against women,” she says. “If a woman is confident in an interview, she’s called ‘steely’ and if a man is confident, he’s called a ‘born leader.’ “Also, people ask women more that question about ‘Having It All’. Give me a hedge-fund manager, who is a man and has five kids – no one says to him, ‘So it looks like you just want to have it all, don’t you? No, they don’t say that. They just say, ‘How wonderful!’”
The singer says that people were “gobsmacked” when she started working only three weeks after giving birth but she was determined to do the Ravel double bill. She has a nanny and is working from home, for the moment – so it’s all manageable. Her role is hands-on, supporting Gus; there’s a lot of entertaining guests who sponsor Glyndebourne, which relies on hefty donations. But de Niese is highly irritated by the assumption that she’s unable to juggle her career with her role as a wife and mother: “Somebody said to Gus after a concert of mine, ‘Thanks for letting us have her.’ Like I’m the property of my husband!”
What she will say is that work is not more important to her than Gus and Bacchus and her four stepsons [hence the mountain of football boots]: “Even though this success has been my lifelong dream, if I have no one to share it with, it’s crap.” There was a concert in Holland, where she was treated like royalty and put into a suite that took up the entire top floor of the best hotel – but she had no one to share the experience with. Her parents, who usually come to all premieres – despite being based in New Jersey – were unavailable; as was Gus, with the summer season at Glyndebourne.
“I’ll never forget the concert, which was amazing but everyone I loved was at the end of a telephone. It was so depressing and lonely.
“So I do want it all. I want the happy marriage, and the beautiful children, a great career… I want those things, so I shall have those things. I’ll just have to work it all out.”
The Last Night of the Proms begins tonight (Saturday 12th September) at 7.15pm on BBC2