October 6, 2015 / 4:50 PM / 3 years ago

French soprano Dessay gives up opera but not the stage

LONDON (Reuters) - French soprano Natalie Dessay gave a recent recital in London that one critic called “sublime” and her latest CD of French art songs has been well received, but she says her fans will never see her again on the opera stage that made her famous.

Dessay, the petite gamine of the French opera world, soared to fame as the mechanical doll Olympia in Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffmann” and scared the living daylights out of her male counterparts as the mad, knife-wielding Lucia in Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor”.

But at age 50, she says the opera is no longer for her.

“I have no roles anymore, I’ve done everything I could do and I don’t want to repeat myself over and over,” Dessay told Reuters in an interview at London’s Barbican.

At the weekend she gave a recital there that received largely favorable notices, including one in The Telegraph that said: “Dessay’s sublime voice has found its way to our hearts”.

With reviews like that, why has she cast off a two-decade-long opera career that won her an adoring audience everywhere from London’s Covent Garden to the Paris Opera to Salzburg and to the Metropolitan Opera in New York?

“I was frustrated because when you have to sing you can’t really express yourself as an actress as much as you want, because you’re constrained by the music,” she said.

“I always wanted to be an actress and I define myself as an actress who happened to sing. What I really like is being on stage playing characters.”

What anyone who had the luck to see Dessay on the opera stage will recall is how she made her characters come to life.

Her portrayal of the betrayed Lucia, for example, was famously powerful — and the Met Opera papered New York with posters of Dessay in the role for a revival there in 2011.

“I try to understand what she’s going through, but I’m not playing the madness, I’m playing the suffering, and that’s enough,” she said.

With opera behind her, Dessay is alternating song recitals, with piano accompanist Philippe Cassard, and tours with the French pop song and film composer Michel Legrand, but her real passion is for live theater.

She recently starred in a French revival of the British playwright Howard Barker’s dark, one-woman play “Und”, about a Jewish woman whose guest is overdue for tea, and who will not accept that the reason her house comes under a series of escalating malicious attacks is because the visitor is a German camp officer.

She is looking for more such roles, but in the meantime she hopes her opera audiences will look out for her in the different venues where she will still be performing.

“It turns all the time around the same thing,” she said. “How to make people travel with me, how to tell them stories in different ways.”

Writing by Michael Roddy; Editing by Gareth Jones

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