David Daniels is “the most acclaimed countertenor of the day, perhaps the best ever,” to use the words of the New York Times. Though many know him best for portraying some of opera’s greatest heroes from Julius Caesar to Orpheus, he is also passionate about civil rights. Daniels spoke with WFMT from Edingburgh, where he is gearing up for a recital at the Queen’s Hall. He just arrived after performing in Thomas Adès’ opera The Tempest at the Wiener Staatsoper. He hit his last performances in Vienna on a high note knowing that the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling for marriage equality throughout the entire United States. Daniels and his husband William Scott Walters were recently married by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. The acclaimed countertenor spoke about finding his voice, finding himself, and the importance of using art to create dialogues around social justice.
And, Daniels has offered WFMT listeners the exclusive opportunity to hear an excerpt from the new American opera Oscar, which was created for him and tells about the trial and imprisonment of Oscar Wilde. So be sure to tune in to WFMT to hear Daniels in this new opera by composer Theodore Morrison and librettist John Cox.
Tell us about finding your voice as countertenor.
I was a boy soprano growing up, and I did lots of professional work as a singer – as a boy soprano. When my voice changed, one never went to college as a countertenor—it was just unheard of in the United States. So I did what everybody does, and began to try to sing as a baritone, and then eventually as a tenor. But it just was never natural; I never lost the ability to sing in this head-voice, the countertenor voice, and it was always my most natural sound. So after years of struggling through college, I finally approached my teacher at that time, George Shirley, about it. He said, “Why would you want to sing any other way?” after hearing me sing, and that’s when I started pursuing the countertenor voice, back in March of 1992.
I’m sure it was interesting finding your own range as a singer at the same time that you were growing up and discovering things about yourself. What was it like growing up in South as a gay man?
Well, you know, I was very fortunate. I think we all as gay men struggle no matter where we grow up, because of how we’re taught and how people talk about the gay community. I mean, I think it’s going to continue to get better for the youth because of what’s going on and because of the steps the Supreme Court has taken about marriage equality. I can only hope that there’ll be less suicide and teen suicide. But for me personally, I was very lucky that I had two parents who were both performers and teachers. I just never grew up in that kind of [negative] situation. Although, you know, it was still tough coming out and telling people, certainly. But I always had parents that loved me unconditionally. So I was a very lucky boy.
Though many performers are gay, it’s not something that is talked about very openly. But you have always been outspoken about your sexuality.
Other than being an openly gay singer, I’ve not been on any sort of national platform about my sexuality, other than it’s just who I am. My work has been done behind the scenes with gay youth who have come to me and thanked me for being so openly “out,” and things that aren’t necessarily talked about in the press. It’s rewarding to know that a young gay man can write me and say, “You have showed me what I didn’t know was possible: that you could be married, you could be happy, you could be successful, you could be loved—and you could be gay.” And to hear that from a 16 year old that’s really struggling where he lives with his family? That means the world to me. I feel so much love. It’s my little role that I play in all of this,
Onstage, you’ve recently played a literal role that gives voice to someone who was persecuted for his sexuality. Can you tell us about creating the role of Oscar Wilde in Oscar?
Nine years ago when we started talking about an opera with Theo Morrison and John Cox—Theo Morrison being the composer, John Cox being the librettist—I wanted to do something that could affect people: a political issue, something that was relevant. And Oscar Wilde made sense to me, the more I read about him, the more I knew about him. I mean, I knew his writings, I knew what had happened, but I didn’t know the extent to which he was persecuted. And so this was just something that I knew was going to be an important story to tell the world, and to remind the world that this happened to this man.
Can you tell us what you learned about yourself as you were exploring Oscar Wilde for this role?
That’s an interesting question… What I learned while I was rehearsing Oscar is that there was a lot of pent-up emotion—even though I’ve been openly gay, even though I have a partner, even though I was out to my parents and there was no rejection from my family. I think as a young gay man, you always are aware of discrimination, and to be telling this story in rehearsals with all of my cast and all of us there together in love, telling the story of this man, it just brought all of this emotion out. And I don’t know if it’s one single thing: I think it could be sadness from being bullied, from being beaten up, from watching friends take their own life. It’s just a combination of so many things that just washed over us, and I was really surprised at the intensity of it all.
Oscar seems like it was a real healing experience.
It was a healing experience in Santa Fe, where the opera premiered, and it continued at Opera Philadelphia, we it was revived just months ago. Opera Philadelphia was less dramatically emotional for us in the rehearsal period, because we had all been there and done that. But I think that because it was less intense, it was a more intense performance from all of us, and a better telling of the story, because it was less about emotion and more about being the character. It’s hard to explain.
Our listeners are very lucky! They get to hear an exclusive clip from the opera of you singing one of Oscar’s arias. Can you tell us about it?
In the aria “My Sweet Rose,” Oscar Wilde has decided to stay in London to go on trial for “gross indecency.” I think that he probably did not think that he would be charged with it, but in the end, as we know, he was. Some of the text of the aria is taken from Oscar Wilde’s actual letters, which are quite moving expressions of his love for Bosie, which is of course what put him in jail in the first place. Telling Oscar Wilde’s story was so important to all of us. We wanted to explore themes that are very relevant today, and we believe that this one is. As a gay man myself, the experience of creating the role of Oscar was a very emotional journey: There were many tears shed in rehearsals every day. I personally have experienced some discrimination in my own life, and even been the victim of physical violence because of my sexuality. But I am a proud gay man, and I am very proud that our country is taking steps in the right direction to provide equal rights for everybody.
Between the two performances, something very exciting and emotional in your life happened: You were married. Can you tell us about your wedding and if you had different feelings performing the role before and after your marriage?
I think performing Oscar the first time in Santa Fe is really what prompted me to look into proposing to my husband Scott, because it just seemed right. You know, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a huge advocate for Oscar and talked about in interviews. She came to the performances in Santa Fe and we were able to meet her and take photos with her. So it all just made sense: I think Prop 8 failed at that time, states started to make marriage legal, and it just all seemed right. So, yeah, we got married between the two runs of Oscar, and fortunately, Justice Ginsburg married us in D.C., which was such an honor. I still look back to that day and can’t really believe it! I asked her, and she said if I could come to Washington, D.C., she would be happy to do it. And on June 21st, 2014, we got married.
So you just celebrated your first anniversary. Congratulations!
We did, thank you! I had a performance that night at the Vienna State Opera, so we didn’t really get to celebrate. I said to Scott, my husband, “What better way to celebrate than to listen to me sing?
Then, just a few days later, of course, Ruth Bader Ginsburg helped make marriage equality a reality. What was it like hearing that news as an American in Vienna?
It was amazing because we could stream American CNN through the computer in our place in Vienna. So we just sat all afternoon in Vienna, waiting, waiting, waiting. Then finally, it was announced, and we were both in tears and just sort of sat and held each other and watched it, as the rest of our country and the world did, as well. It was a little sad being out of the country; we would have loved to be with our friends there in Atlanta, Georgia, because of course that was one of the states that was not going to allow it until the Supreme Court came and made it right. But it was an incredible day for all of us: for all humanity, not just the gay community.