It’s not every day that a singer who specializes in 18th-century Baroque opera gets to star in a world premiere. But part-time Atlantan and renowned countertenor David Daniels is taking on the lead role of Prospero in the Metropolitan Opera’s world-premiere production of “The Enchanted Island,” to be broadcast live to movie theaters worldwide as part of the Met’s “Live in HD” series on January 21.
The production, Daniels says, came about as a way to showcase the music of early opera for modern audiences. Recognizing the popularity of recent Baroque productions, the Met’s general director, Peter Gelb, wanted to produce a show that would make the form more accessible. (Baroque operas can run into the four- and even five-hour range and often use staging conventions, such as singers exiting after each aria, that make them challenging for contemporary viewers.)
“Enchanted Island” is a pastiche, itself a Baroque tradition, in which a new show is created by taking plot elements, characters and arias from a number of pre-existing sources. “Island” tells the back story of Prospero from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” using selections from more than 30 operas, cantatas and oratorios by Handel, Vivaldi, Rameau and other masters of the Baroque period. Daniels’ co-stars include Joyce diDonato as the witch Sycorax, Danielle de Niese as Ariel, Luca Pisaroni as Caliban and, in a cameo, Plácido Domingo in the deus ex machina role of Neptune. Early-music specialist William Christie will conduct.
As in the Baroque era, the arias in “Island” were chosen to match the singers’ strengths, and the singers themselves were consulted as to what would become part of the show. A favorite aria for Daniels is “Pena, tiranna” from Handel’s “Amadigi,” which becomes “Chaos, Confusion” in “The Enchanted Island.” Lyrics are not translations from the original French or Italian. As in the pastiche tradition, new lyrics — in this case English ones by librettist Jeremy Sams — have been substituted. “We were part of the whole process,” Daniels says of the unusual way the opera was created. “Each of us as individuals was able to put forth some arias that we like, that we think work well for us as singers, that have worked well for us as singers in other productions.”
He says he has enjoyed the unusual opportunity to participate in creating a new work, but in the end he feels that it lacks the heft and drama of the genuine article. “It’s Walt Disney meets 18th century,” Daniels says. “It’s charming, entertaining, beautiful, magical. It is what it is. This is fluffy, fun gorgeousness…. But if one brings a real human approach to the intact, complete operas — like this person is a real human being with real feelings, even if the story is kind of wack — it’s just a more moving night of theater. Handel was a master dramatist. He made characters that pull at your heartstrings.”
Producers need to lose their fear of scheduling complete Baroque operas, the singer argues. Such shows are still seen as a risk, in spite of their recent surge in popularity. “I see it over and over,” he says. “They’re always scared to death to schedule too many performances of a Baroque opera because they don’t want to lose money. They think of it as a risk. But what happens is it’s the only one that sells out, it’s the only one that everyone wants to see. And then they end up saying, ‘We should have done two or three more performances.’ ”
The countertenor grew up in Spartanburg, S.C., and moved to Atlanta about six years ago. He and his partner also maintain homes in New York and Ann Arbor, Mich., and Daniels spends most of his time traveling and performing. “I’ve always loved Atlanta,” he says of the city, where he maintains a base in a loft building in Midtown, where Robert Spano is a neighbor and friend. “I have a lot of friends in Atlanta that sing in the symphony chorus,” Daniels says. “I’m a huge Braves fan. I’m a huge sports fan in general, but I’m just passionate about the Braves. I followed them when they used to lose 100 games in a season in the ’70s.”
Although appearing in a world premiere in a role tailored to match him is unusual for an early-music specialist such as Daniels, this won’t be the last time. He’ll appear in another world premiere, being specifically written for him by composer Theodore Morrison and librettist John Cox. “Oscar,” which will premiere in Santa Fe, N.M., in 2013, tells the story of the trials of Oscar Wilde, with Daniels in the lead. “I’m so thrilled at the subject matter,” he says. “The way this man was persecuted… It’s horrible what this man had to suffer. I’m thrilled to sing the role. It’s a great piece of music. Having a piece written for me: that’s been a dream of mine, and it’s finally coming true.”
Daniels says that being an openly gay man in the world of opera is not difficult, but it does present some challenges. “Instead of being a singer, I was ‘the gay singer’ for a while. But it’s not hard to be out in the world of opera. Especially not as a countertenor…. It’s not as if it’s going to be a shock to someone! The irony is that the majority of my countertenor friends who sing at these houses are all heterosexual.”
He adds: “There are a lot of gay people in this business that don’t find it as important as I do to talk about. But with the amount of suicides that are happening every day of young gay boys and girls, I find it ridiculously important.”