if sex is present in the music, i can’t ignore it

Opera song

“Even when I debuted at the Met when I was 19,” she explains, “there was an understanding that there was a trend toward roles that required acting skills.” As she approached a more suitable age for the role – she is now 42 – her management began to seek opportunities for her to do it in concert or in a production. Then the pandemic hit. “My mum said to me, ‘You’re stuck, it’s a one-woman show, why don’t you find a way to make it into a movie?’ I said, ‘Mom, genius.’

The BBC, for which she presented a documentary on unknown female composers in 2018, put her in touch with director James Kent. One of the first things she wanted to do before production was figure out what the man on the other end of the line might say. “I said, ‘I need to know who this man is. It is therefore necessary to write a play parallel to that of Cocteau.’ »

The score was recorded by the Royal Opera House Orchestra, conducted by Antonio Pappano and performed quietly on the set (which looks impeccably French despite being a house on the Thames in the west from London). De Niese initially imagined that she could get away with not singing in every take. “I just realized I can’t do anything but sing this. We showed it at a screening and one person was like, ‘The timing was amazing’ and I was like, ‘Hey well, that would be because I sang the whole thing live.”

According to his biographer Benjamin Ivry, Poulenc rejected the suggestion that Maria Callas sing the role, preferring Denise Duval, his collaborator and muse whose tumultuous love life was familiar to him. The creation of Elle was therefore a joint venture – the composer bringing to it his own knowledge of the pillbox. Did De Niese also tap into his personal sorrows to look so upset?

“I know the method by which you can think of your dead dog and it brings tears. It doesn’t really work for me. I can not [find] emotions from the recall of previous emotional traumas. I haven’t had many either,” she adds sheepishly. “I’m very lucky in life.”

This may largely be true. As a single woman (she is now married to Gus Christie, the executive chairman of Glyndebourne) she says she avoided the worst excesses highlighted by #MeToo. But, in June last year, she had an experience that would have tested anyone, no matter how well founded. Seven months after giving birth to her second child and only a day before she was due to open as Musetta in La Bohème at the Royal Opera House, she was admitted to hospital suffering from severe cramps due to what ‘she later learned was an ectopic pregnancy. Incredibly, however, she continued the show.

“The Royal Opera House has been incredibly supportive,” she says. “They could have thought to themselves and gone, ‘Danni, it’s okay, you’re going to rest.’ But they knew I wanted to keep going. I was in horrible pain, but once the morphine kicked in, I was like, ‘Ah, I feel good.’ It was dramatic, but I’m very at peace with it. I’m not traumatized by it.”