Coloratura: Natalie Dessay

Photo: Simon Fowler/Courtesy of EMI Classics

A year after undergoing surgery on her vocal cords for the second time, the French soprano Natalie Dessay is singing the role of Juliette opposite Ramón Vargas in Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette at the Metropolitan Opera (though a bad cold kept her offstage for the premiere last Monday). In January, her new album of Handel’s Italian cantatas will be released in the U.S. She spoke with Alicia Zuckerman.

This isn’t one of those high-soprano roles you’re known for.
It’s over.

Because as a high soprano, I did almost everything I could do, so I got bored. And anyway, the voice changed, because of age, maybe because of surgery.

Right—you had a cyst and a polyp on your vocal cords. It must have been difficult getting back into shape.
It’s like every rebuilding: It’s discouraging because it’s not even. One day you’re well, and the next day you have to restart from the beginning. Actually, the Metropolitan Opera was faithful to me. Even in that moment, they continued to propose things. I will be always grateful.

And now Roméo et Juliette. But how do you make that story fresh?
I have no idea. My point was more to be believable as a teenager—I’m 40. She’s a young person who doesn’t know anything. I remember very well how I was. I was terrible.

You’re known for your acting. Which other singers are really strong actors?
I won’t name anybody, but of course there are. More and more, and that’s good. Because we really want to change the world of opera, to sweep away the dust. You know, it’s half the job.

How do you continue to hone your acting?
I try to ask directors all the time: “What do you think of that? Can I propose that? I’m not happy with that.”

And how do directors respond?
They love that. And if they don’t, I don’t care. [Laughs] It’s a game, you know? Like Ping-Pong.

Roméo et Juliette
At The Metropolitan Opera
Through March 9

Coloratura: Natalie Dessay