- Natalie Dessay: Airs d’operas français
First, let me state that this recital, recorded July–August 2003, is significant if for no other reason than it is a splendid testament to Natalie Dessay's determination to overcome a medical condition that robbed her of nearly two years of her career.1 Before that time she had established herself as one of the finest florid specialists to grace modern operatic stages. I was at her Metropolitan Opera debut on 13 October 1994, when she sang Fiakermilli in Strauss's Arabella. I remember the voice being a healthy, medium-sized instrument most notable for its distinctive timbre, unusual ease in floating a pianissimo high D, and the degree of artistry that framed the singer's work. Recordings made around that time show no evidence of problems but confirmed that initial impression of Dessay as a well-trained, technically secure—if not particularly spontaneous—artist. No matter what, she is a very smart singer. One notices, however, a difference in her singing between 1999 and 2000. So what happened?
Why Dessay developed vocal nodes is, in many ways, puzzling. Before 2001, her technique was so secure and her breath support so prodigious that she was able to alter dynamics on a high E without a waver, and overall her control of her instrument was that of a master, her singing always notable for its solid consistency. During the first decade of her career, she had the coveted ability to thrust into the vocal stratosphere to sustained Gs and A-flats. Since so few singers can achieve such feats in public, that [End Page 195] ability earned her much press and popularity. The fact that she surrounded such displays with artistic, beautifully sculpted phrases was an added benefit. Indeed, we are fortunate that some of Dessay's highest excursions above the staff have been documented for posterity, for she is one of the few performers to demonstrate that such interpolations can be valid artistic choices that help highlight a character portrayal or qualities in the music being performed.2 It is possible that her use of such high notes may have put some strain on her cords, but that could not be the whole answer, especially since Dessay was able to call upon those notes for almost a decade and was usually judicious in their use, reserving them for particular effects.3
Another, more insidious influence that could contribute to the development of nodes is a singer's attitude toward his or her instrument and its inherent limitations—a mental conflict between what a singer wants the voice to be able to do versus what it actually can do. Dessay herself alluded to this in an interview in 2003. While discussing her return to the performing stage, she admitted, "I do not like my type of voice. . . . I am frustrated that I am not Angela Gheorghiu. Or Birgit Nilsson. I want a big voice. I want to sing Puccini."4
She has often derogatorily referred to her instrument as a "bird voice" and has made it plain that she is a restless artist. Rather controversially, she has even written to the alternative singer, Icelandic-born Bjork, with the idea of collaborating. In the on-line magazine Andante, Matthew Westphal commented:
The soprano's efforts to broaden her repertoire in recent years may have placed some strain in the voice. "Natalie Dessay never wanted to be a French 'teakettle soprano,' says Philadelphia Inquirer critic and Dessay fan David Patrick Stearns, referring to the small, nasal, very high sound typical of the "French school" of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. "She did not want the French sound and she did want an international career with an international repertoire—and she has pursued specific vocal training to achieve that." Stearns points out that Dessay made a few recordings early in her career which do present that Gallic timbre, a sound quite different from the one she now displays as Zerbinetta and Olympia—the sound that made her a worldwide star. "In broadening her repertoire and cultivating the voice to go with...