SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Her character Antonia literally sings herself to death in Offenbach’s “The Tales of Hoffmann,” but in real life Natalie Dessay says her own upcoming break from opera is not so irrevocable.
“I’m going to take a sabbatical, and then we’ll see,” the French soprano said in an interview. “The truth is my repertoire is shrinking. I’m not a young woman anymore, so I don’t feel adequate for roles where I’m the girl in love for the first time. I don’t want to eternally redo Lucia or Ophelie or even Manon. I want some new challenges.”
So after the curtain falls on her last performance in “Hoffmann” at the San Francisco Opera on July 6, Dessay will vanish for a time from American opera stages. Her last scheduled operatic performances anywhere are in Massenet’s “Manon” this fall in Toulouse, France.
After that, no opera, at least through 2015. But that hardly means Dessay is giving up singing. She has several concert tours planned with pianist Philippe Cassard, who will accompany her in songs by, among others, Clara Schumann, Brahms, Debussy and Duparc. She also will tour with Michel Legrand, using a microphone while singing works by a composer known for his popular songs and jazz.
“So I won’t be doing opera — but I will be doing things to earn money,” Dessay said.
And she’d like to fulfill a lifelong dream by breaking into theater. In fact, she started out as a drama student. Singing came about almost by accident because she had to do some for a role in a student play, and “people said, ‘Oh, you have a nice voice.’”
That nice voice — agile and bell-like up to the soprano stratosphere — catapulted her to international stardom in the early 1990s in such comic roles as Zerbinetta in Richard Strauss’ “Ariadne auf Naxos” and the mechanical doll Olympia in “Tales of Hoffmann.”
More serious dramatic parts followed — the title role in Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor,” Ophelie in Thomas’ “Hamlet” and Violetta in Verdi’s “La Traviata.”
But now, at age 48, she no longer can manage the highest notes, and her voice never grew big enough for heavier lyric roles like Mimi in Puccini’s “La Boheme.”
“For example, I’d like to be able to do Blanche (the heroine of Poulenc’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites”), but that’s not for my voice,” she said. “It would be possible in a small hall, but in a big house it’s not a good idea. I’ve done Melisande (in Debussy’s “Pelleas and Melisande”) in a small house, but I couldn’t do it at the Metropolitan Opera.”
Still, based on her performance as Antonia on Thursday night, Dessay seems an unlikely candidate for early retirement from the opera stage. Vocally she sounded in fine shape, her delicate soprano perhaps a bit small for the role but fitting perfectly with her character’s fragile state. And dramatically she was as compelling as ever.
One casualty of her planned time away from opera is the role of the emotionally unstable Elvira in Bellini’s “I Puritani.” She had agreed to do it in Paris and at the Met, but ended up canceling both engagements.
“The music is wonderful, but I just don’t see myself playing her,” she said. “She becomes crazy in exactly 30 seconds, then she’s not crazy anymore, then she’s crazy again.
“I mean, the libretto is really too stupid,” she said, wrinkling her nose.
A new part she is considering after her sabbatical is the wily maid Despina in Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte.” It might seem a surprising choice, since it’s by no means the lead role in the opera.
“The Met offered it to me, and I think it’s a good idea,” she said. “It’s maybe not that interesting to sing, but it would be wonderful to play.”
The role she most regrets never performing is the title character in Berg’s atonal masterpiece “Lulu.”
“I couldn’t learn it,” she said. “It’s just horribly long. Musically, I’m not a good reader. And I don’t have perfect pitch. It would have taken me two years.”
Even though she’ll be doing concert tours, Dessay is looking forward to spending more time at home in France with her family — husband bass-baritone Laurent Nouri and their two teenage children. As of June, she had been on the road non-stop since February.
“I think they are very happy, because they will see me more,” she said, adding with a smile, “of course, they may regret that after a few months.”