Opera singer and director Denyce Graves on why ‘Carmen’ matters today

A photo of a woman and a man side by side
Opera singer and director Denyce Graves and president and general director of the Minnesota Opera Ryan Taylor.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Opera

You may not think you know the opera “Carmen,” but you probably do. It’s full of catchy tunes that are easy to hum.

In the same way, you may not think you know Denyce Graves, but you probably have heard her powerful voice. Graves is regarded as one of the greatest “Carmen” singers of all time and one of the great mezzo-sopranos of the 21st century. 

She’s performed around the world with The Three Tenors. In 2020, she sang in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol where the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg lay in state.

The first time Graves sang the role that made her famous was in the Minnesota Opera’s 1991 production of “Carmen.” The 19th century French opera by composer Georges Bizet tells the story of a soldier’s possessive infatuation for a Romani factory girl that leads to his downfall. This spring, Graves has returned to the Twin Cities, not to sing, but to direct the company’s production of “Carmen,” which opens in May. 

At 9 a.m. Wednesday, MPR News host Angela Davis spoke with Graves about opera, growing up in Washington, D.C. and what it's been like to be a Black woman singing her way to the top of a traditionally white, European musical art form.

Guests: 

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  • Denyce Graves is recognized as one of the great mezzo-soprano opera singers of our time. She’s performed at Metropolitan Opera, Vienna Staatsoper, Royal Opera House – Covent Garden, San Francisco Opera and on many other stages around the world. She is directing Minnesota Opera’s “Carmen,” which opens in May.

  • Ryan Taylor is president and general director of the Minnesota Opera.

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Hear their conversation using the audio player above and read the highlights below.

“The one thing that we reached for, that everybody reached for during COVID, were the arts,” Graves said. “And we could see how vital and essential the arts were… We’re watching movies, we’re watching plays, we would listen to opera. Listening to music, reading books – that was the anchor that everybody held onto. And that’s what opera has the power to do: to unite people.”

Graves grew up in Washington, D.C. and, with her mother’s guidance, she sang at church. Opera came later. “In the neighborhood that I grew up in, nobody was listening to opera,” Graves said. 

A music teacher encouraged Graves throughout her early years – first as she expressed a love for music in kindergarten, then through junior high school chorus and finally as a student at a performing arts high school, where she discovered opera.

And she has distinct ties to Minnesota. “The relationship that I’ve had with Minnesota Opera has just been one that has defined my whole career,” she said.

She landed her first role, as Carmen, with Minnesota Opera. She said that role took her everywhere. “And I mean everywhere – there wasn’t an opera house that I didn’t sing in all over the world, with everybody. And now here I am, 30-something years later, directing…”

Once again, Graves will debut with Minnesota Opera, now as a director. “This first experience has changed the whole trajectory of how I see myself and where I’m going to go and what lies ahead. And so I’m just really, really grateful,” she said.

Besides directing “Carmen” for the Minnesota Opera, Graves keeps busy with her foundation, which invests in education to share the stories of African American musical figures. Graves said that work is inspired by opera singer Mary Cardwell Dawson, who, unable to find work in an environment permeated by racism after graduating from a conservatory in 1925, established her own music school and opera company.