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Interview: Danielle de Niese 

The in-demand diva explores the allure of The Merry Widow.

Danielle de Niese didn’t expect to fall in love with Hanna. She came to The Merry Widow, like so many people, for the tantalising, titillating high kicks of the can-can. But while this production has all the froth she could have hoped for ("a bathtub full of it," she quips), it’s the love story that drew her in.

"I came to The Merry Widow thinking can-can and then I got completely roped in to this deeply romantic love story," she says. "The concept that really speaks to my soul is the idea of the one that got away. The one that got away is back."

Hanna and Danilo’s second chance to rekindle their youthful passion "took me right in," de Niese says.

A portrait of Danielle de Niese

A portrait of Danielle de Niese. Photo credit: Chris Dunlop.

Gorgeous, glamorous and a good bit younger than the sopranos often associated with this role, de Niese didn’t have this role on her bucket list, or even on her radar. But when Opera Australia’s Artistic Director Lyndon Terracini called, she couldn’t say no.

"It’s so amazing to be back home in Australia for my operatic debut," she says. "I started singing at six years old in Melbourne, and all of my dreams were born here. It kind of makes me weep with joy to be back in this place, it’s very nostalgic for me."

On top of that, performing in one of the greatest icons in the world is really special. "More people know about the Sydney Opera House than probably know about opera, so to have the chance to debut there is really special. There is a lot of story behind how this institution came to be built, so to be a part of that history, to know that my name will be put down somewhere as somebody who got to sing here, as somebody who did good work in a fabulous new production like this, it’s so special for me."

With the help of director Graeme Murphy, de Niese is enjoying the surprise of discovering Hanna. "She has this magnetism, where the smallest thing she does draws attention. People gravitate towards her. She also has a kindness that she hasn’t forgotten," de Niese says. "I don’t want her to be haughty, and so worldly that she’s forgotten who she is. That comes from youth." These ingredients come together to make this Hanna — and this show — unlike any other The Merry Widow.

Danilo and Hanna look into each others eyes.

Alexander Lewis as Danilo and Danielle de Niese as Hanna in Opera Australia's production of The Merry Widow, Arts Centre Melbourne 2017. Photo credit: Jeff Busby.

She gushes over the vision of director Graeme Murphy and creative associate Janet Vernon. "They are absolutely gorgeous spirits who understand how important it is to tether the inner soul of your character to the outer skin, which is very much what I live for, so it’s been a joy all around."

Any production of The Merry Widow is filled with dance, but with Graeme Murphy, one of Australia's best known choreographers, at the helm, this one is especially so. "It's pretty dance-heavy in the most wonderful way possible," de Niese says, "in that the dancing enhances the emotional life of the text. It's not dance for the sake of dance, it's absolutely dance that emanates from an impulse of text, to music, to movement."

A woman in a top hat looks directly at the camera while dancers in tutus pose around her.

Danielle de Niese as Hanna in Opera Australia's production of The Merry Widow, Arts Centre Melbourne 2017. Photo credit: Jeff Busby.

Whether in the ballroom or on the stage, de Niese has always loved to dance, but The Merry Widow has put new demands on her body. "Nothing quite readies you for the physical demands of being treated like a dancer in a show, but without having the time to devote to caring for your body like a dancer would."

She’s not complaining – in fact, there’s a kind of glee in her voice as she speaks of "flexing new chops" and using new muscles in her body.

"It’s so nice to be able to have someone set the bar for you in this way, and then you have to rise to the challenge. And we’re all rising, so it’s going to be great," she says.

Jennifer Williams

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