News & Politics

What Made Me: Opera Star Denyce Graves

The DC native on telling stories, discovering music, and the power of being yourself.

Photograph by Douglas Sonders.

The parent: I am one of three children from a single mom, and because she had to work so many jobs, we were the original latchkey kids. My mother really wanted to make sure that we used our time constructively, so in addition to our homework she would give us assignments. Monday would be book-report night, and Thursday was music night. We would make up songs and perform them on Saturdays. The greatest thing that happened in my life was the discovery of music.

The inspiration: My mother was a great storyteller, and that’s what being an opera singer is—telling stories. When we were kids, she’d read us a book but wouldn’t finish it. She’d say, “Okay, Denyce, you finish the story. How do you think it should end?” I’m a great dreamer, and I think that led to dreaming myself out of my circumstances.

The piece of music: The first opera I ever heard was Cavalleria Rusticana by Mascagni. A voice teacher gave it to me to illustrate legato singing, and I was absolutely mesmerized. I was very socially awkward and shy, and with music I felt like I’d found my home—who I could be.

The role: It was really Bizet’s Carmen who showed me how to be a woman and to stand up for yourself no matter what anybody else thinks. To stand alone and be who you are is an incredibly powerful thing. It’s no mistake that I’ve had such a long walk with this woman, because she keeps reiterating to me over and over again, “Be who you are.”

This article appears in the December 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.