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Thursday, Jun 20, 2024

Daniels Sounds Like a Woman, Sings Like a Star

Author: Yvonne Chen

What does it take to open an opera performance at Middlebury College? A flourish of trumpets? A smart kick in the pants? A tender introduction? Or nothing at all?

This Sunday afternoon an almost packed house at Middlebury's Concert Hall investigated these questions and soon found out, as countertenor David Daniels established, it takes very little at all.

A crowd, made up mostly of appreciative local residents and College staff, sat quietly as they waited to see what the hype was all about — what Middlebury's public affairs office described as "a voice nothing short of remarkable" and The New Yorker called "a voice of remarkable purity and tonal beauty along with a command of style and color that any singer would kill for."

The countertenor walked onto the stage, winking and almost smirking at random audience members. He showed his confidence in nothing less than a finely fitted suit and loud tie. After a delayed pause, he was finally ready to begin.

His first note seemed effortless. By the opening line — from "Chanson de la Mariée: Reveille-toi perdrix mignonne" ("Wake up dear little partridge") — one sensed the audience's surprise as they incongruently fidgeted and scratched their heads and proceeded to lean a little further on the edge of their seats. A voice of wonder emerged from the singer's lips and impregnated the crowd: a voice of clarity, femininity and the sublime.

Possessing the highest possible range of the male voice — lying somewhere between a tenor and mezzo-soprano — Daniels' lilting voice was an extraordinary experience for anyone who was accustomed to voice being either strictly feminine or masculine. Despite being defined as a falsetto by scholars, Daniels asserts that there is nothing false about his sound, which he calls a gift and the way he was "meant to produce a singing voice." Daniels nonetheless blurs the lines between the hegemonic and the post-traditional.

The countertenor defies popular convention, transfixing a new set of expectations and overturning the world of opera by installing modern standards in an art of antiquity.

Daniels has won esteem among the pick of the critics too. In the past 10 years, he has earned a 1999 Grammy nomination, 2001 Gramophone Editor's Choice Award for Album of the Year, Musical America's 1997 Vocalist of the Year and the Richard Tucker Award, which recognizes up-and-coming opera stars at the start of any major national and international career.

After a highly successful tour of Europe last fall, where Daniels performed with the Netherlands Opera and the Europa Galante, an award-winning chamber orchestra, he came to Middlebury showcasing music that included selections of Handel's "Semele," Hector Berlioz's "Les nuits d'été" ("The nights of summer"), Ravel's "Cinq melodies populaires grecques" ("Five popular Greek melodies") and selections by Poulenc and Benjamin Britten. He also performed a song cycle of James Joyce's poems for voice and piano that was commissioned by Theodore Morrison, one of Daniels' former teachers.

Some of his more notable performances included the highest note of the evening in Handel's piece "Your Tuneful Voice" and the cluster of difficult vibratos in Poulenc's "La belle jeunesse" ("The pretty youth"), a playful song praising the art of chasing women.

Daniels' piano accompanist, Martin Katz, is also an acclaimed artist in his own right. He has earned the title of "dean of collaborative pianists" from The Los Angeles Times and has worked as a conductor for orchestras of the BBC, Houston, Washington, D.C., Tokyo, New Haven, Ct., and Miami. In addition, he serves as an honorary professor of music at the University of Michigan.

At the conclusion of the show, which was elongated by three encores, the singer pleased the crowd time and time again with songs that were dear to his heart. Among them was a ballad from Daniels' native Southeast, called "Blackberry Winter." During the blackberry winter described in the song, when blackberry blossoms are in bloom for a short time, one can admire their beauty, fall in love and "whatever happens you remember." So too, Daniels' and Katz's performance was a memorable one that will not be soon forgotten.