A week ago Tuesday, Denyce Graves was in a car, talking on the phone, heading toward Dulles International Airport to catch a plane that would take her to Turkey.
Graves, the mezzo-soprano superstar of the opera and recital world, had just left the Music Center at Strathmore in Bethesda, where she would be doing a recital on June 13, singing everything from Schumann to Handel to Gershwin.
Meantime, she would be jetting to Turkey to appear in the Mersin Music Festival where, accompanied by the Bikent Symphony Orchestra on May 28, she would sing arias from operas by Bizet and Handel.
The weekend before, she had just completed a grueling three-performances-in-a-row stint in Nashville with the Nashville Symphony’s production of Bartok’s one-act opera “Bluebeard’s Castle,” a production that included sets by glass sculptor Dale Chihuly.
“It’s something I don’t usually do,” she said in a phone interview. “It’s exhausting, it’s hard on the voice. I’m used to a busy schedule, but you have to be careful, you really do.”
Graves, in mid-career at full voice, busy with recitals and opera roles, is as close to an international performing icon as the world of opera and classical music has right now. It’s not just that — she all but owns the leading roles in “Carmen” and “Samson and Delilah,” and is the go-to voice and singer for historic and state occasions, such as the recent funeral for the renowned civil rights leader Dr. Dorothy Height at Washington National Cathedral. Her meteoric rise from what’s been described as an “under-privileged neighborhood” in Southwest Washington still resonates as a shining example of dreams-that-come-true success stories.
She’s a triple threat — local D.C. girl makes good, wows them in her debut as at the Metropolitan Opera, travels constantly all over the world to perform at renowned and classic opera houses and concert halls. She’s the proud mother of five-year-old Ella, and last year married (for the third time) Dr. Robert Montgomery, a renowned John Hopkins heart surgeon, in a spectacular five-day wedding, preceded by a traditional Masai blessing ceremony in Kenya.
She has grown into her fame and status, something that wasn’t always easy to handle. Being a role model is in the mix too: young African Americans look up to her as a measure of just how high you can reach. “That’s important, certainly,” she said. “I remember looking up to Leontyne Price in just the same way, or thinking of Marian Anderson, and everything she had to go through to persevere. And I love working with young people, and make sure they can come and see my performances.”
Probably the biggest role model for Graves remains her mother, now the doting grandmother, who you could hear her talking in the background.
“My mom raised us (there were three children) by herself, our father left us, she worked at UDC, she was the single mother, let me tell you,” she said. “There was no chance of us straying from the straight and narrow. I was a bit of a loner, kind of awkward, I wasn’t what you would call a cool kid.”
But getting into Duke Ellington School for the Arts changed all that. She blossomed there, discovering the wide world of opera and classical music.
“Duke Ellington and Judith Grove, one of my teachers there, was and is a huge part of my success. I discovered myself there, I am eternally grateful for that school,” she said.
Part of the last year’s wedding celebration, in fact, was a day-after picnic on the school grounds in Georgetown. She and her husband live in Bethesda.
She still seems to relish and enjoy compliments, or if someone has a memory of her performances, like seeing her at Mayor Anthony Williams inauguration, Dr. Height’s funeral or a production of “Carmen” at the Washington National Opera last year, where she was a vivid, fiery presence.
Other people’s memories are even better. Here’s a Washington Post response to Graves when she sang at the 70th anniversary celebration at Marian Andersen’s historic 1939 concert at the Lincoln Memorial “Many of the tourists seemed oblivious to the operatic royalty in the midst. But Graves’ voice was so powerful it drew gasps from the audience as she sang.” She sang at the National Cathedral in a stirring and powerful rendition of “America the Beautiful” at a memorial service honoring the 9/11 dead, only three days after the event.
“Mom spoils my daughter rotten,” she said over the phone. “Yes, mother, where’s that drill sergeant we all experienced?” she laughed. “She is a remarkable woman.”
Her summer schedule is hectic. Following the June 13 recital at Strathmore, there’s the Cincinnati Opera 90th Anniversary Gala Concert (June 19), a performance of “Carmen” in Warsaw, Poland, (June 26), and in July there’s the Hohentwiel Festival in Baden-Wurttemberg in Germany, followed by another “Carmen.”
If you start looking over her list of accomplishments, performances, honors and pit stops- — she lived in Paris for a time — you’d think she could even think about resting on her laurels a bit. “No, no,” she said, shaking off the suggestion strongly. “Let me tell you, I’ve got a very big wish list of things I haven’t done, things I want to do, performance-wise, and many other ways too, roles, music to explore, life experience.”
We wrap up the conversation quickly. “I have to go,” she said. “We’re at the airport.”