David Daniels
Theodore Morrison (l.) leading wrokshop of "Oscar" with David Daniels (r.)Oscar Wilde, the subject of a new opera starring David Daniels

In His True Voice
David Daniels is King of the Countertenors

by Marilou Carlin


The story of how David Daniels embraced his true voice to become the world’s greatest countertenor is the stuff of legend. The artist, who is credited with reestablishing the countertenor as a major force in opera and opening the doors for hundreds who have followed in his footsteps, always knew he had unique vocal capabilities. But his remarkable gift remained hidden from his professors right up until he was about to graduate with his master’s of music from the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance in 1992.


“I wasn’t resisting my voice,” said Daniels. “There were just no countertenors at school then—none. There was no precedent. I would entertain at parties in my countertenor voice, but nobody ever thought a career could be made of it; it just didn’t happen.”


As an undergraduate, Daniels had studied at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, where he “struggled badly as a tenor.” He was convinced that it was because he was studying with a bass baritone. Knowing that the celebrated tenor George Shirley was teaching at SMTD, the alma mater of Daniels’s singing teacher parents (Perry Daniels and Phyllis McFarland), he set his sights on graduate school at U-M. “I thought that was going to open all the doors up to becoming the world’s greatest tenor,” said Daniels.


Unfortunately, his troubles as a tenor continued. According to Shirley, Daniels was good, but he had limitations; he did not have access to the top of his voice, and it was extremely frustrating to him. Unbeknownst to Shirley, however, Daniels was also working with Dr. Julie Jaffee Nagel (wife of SMTD Professor Louis Nagel), a psychoanalyst and musician who has had great success in helping people overcome blocks to creativity and performance anxiety. “I spoke to her about my other voice, and it was like I was speaking as if it belonged to someone else—it wasn’t me,” said Daniels.


Late in his final semester, Daniels acquired the courage to approach Shirley with tapes of two arias sung by someone that Daniels identified as “a friend.” Shirley listened to them and knew immediately who was singing. “Is that you?” he asked. Daniels affirmed that it was. Shirley said: “You’re crazy if you don’t sing with this voice. Why would you want to sing any other way? There’s no decision to be made, you just made it.” 


Daniels immediately began making audition tapes and had to quickly reprogram his graduation recital. “He knew exactly what to do and how to do it,” said Shirley. “He sang fabulously at his recital and knocked us all out.”


“I wept all the way through it,” said Theodore Morrison, U-M professor emeritus of choral conducting and former director of graduate studies in conducting. Daniels had been a member of Morrison’s chamber choir and today could be considered a muse for Morrison’s current career as a composer. “It blew me away because I didn’t know David was that deep. I think what he needed was to have his own voice, the voice that he has made his career on, as the vehicle to express his depth.”


Before the recital, Daniels learned that the Los Angeles Opera would be staging Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummers Night’s Dream the following season, so he sent an audition tape for the role of Oberon, a rare countertenor lead. He was promptly hired as the cover. “Within two years,” said Morrison, “David was a star. Within five years, he was the greatest living countertenor—no doubt about it.”


Today, at age 46, Daniels has performed all of the great countertenor roles with the world’s greatest opera companies, and maintains an equally lauded career as a recitalist and recording artist. The Chicago Tribune has called Daniels “today’s gold standard among countertenors.” The New York Times echoed that claim: “To say that he is the most acclaimed countertenor of the day, perhaps the best ever, is to understate his achievement. He is simply a great singer.”


Michigan audiences have been fortunate to have Daniels return frequently for performances, most recently in his Michigan Opera Theatre debut in early November in the title role of George Frideric Handel’s Julius Caesar, a part he has sung many times in his 20-year career. In the spring, Daniels repeats the role with the Metropolitan Opera (April 4–May 10, 2013).


Daniels’s connection with Handel’s music runs deep. The Wall Street Journal has referred to him as “the quintessential exponent of Handelian style.” Handel wrote many great parts for countertenor (which in his day were Europe’s celebrated castrati) and Daniels has sung them all. He returns to Michigan in February when he will perform a concert opera of Handel’s Radamisto, at Hill Auditorium (February 17 at 4 PM) with The English Concert. Taking place during Hill Auditorium’s centennial year, the performance reunites Daniels with Hill, where he performed in the 2004 concert that reopened the venerable hall following its massive renovation.


While singing the few but wonderful countertenor roles of centuries past has been a thrill for Daniels, it has always been his dream to originate a role in a brand new opera. That dream comes true next summer when he will perform the title role in Oscar, based on the trial and imprisonment of Oscar Wilde. The role was written specifically for him by Theodore Morrison. The opera will have its world premiere at the Santa Fe Opera in July 2013 and will be performed by The Opera Company of Philadelphia, which co-commissioned the work, in February 2015.


“I am hoping that Oscar will be the highlight of my career,” said Daniels in a quote on Morrison’s website. “I have always said that new music is going to be essential for the evolution of the countertenor voice to continue and to have staying power. This opera answers that imperative with a strong, appealing character and wonderfully compelling music.”


The Oscar libretto is co-authored by Morrison and the celebrated opera director John Cox. The two artists met following the London premiere of Morrison’s James Joyce song cycle, “Chamber Music,” which he’d composed for Daniels and U-M professor of collaborative piano, Martin Katz. Cox, who loved the concert, asked Morrison if he’d ever thought of writing an opera and the composer replied, “No, but I certainly would love to write an opera for David.” With that, the ball was rolling and Morrison, who at 74 has only been composing since his forties, began work on the most ambitious project of his career.


Over the next seven years, Oscar was created with Cox acting as Morrison’s “rigorous and exacting mentor in the area of stagecraft,” according to the composer. The subject was mutually chosen by Daniels, Morrison, and Cox. “David wanted a subject that would be of social value,” said Morrison. “And of course this is a subject that is very close to events that are occurring in our national life and the world’s life.”


The opera necessarily compresses the events of Wilde’s imprisonment and trial for “gross indecency,” spurred by the Marquess of Queensberry in retribution for the intimate relationship that Wilde was having with the Marquess’s son, Lord Alfred Douglas. In their extensive historical research on the subject, Morrison and Cox consulted more than 50 books about Wilde and met with his grandson, Merlin Holland, a leading Wilde scholar. Among the many things they learned is that one of Wilde’s friends described the writer’s singing voice as being a “rich alto falsetto.”


The Oscar libretto is based on actual writings by Wilde as well as the writers Ada Leverson and Frank Harris, good friends of Wilde’s who appear as characters in the opera. Walt Whitman, meanwhile, serves as a “Shakespearian chorus speaking from immortality,” according to Morrison. “We believe that Wilde deserves to be in the pantheon of the immortal,” he said. “We embrace him not as a victim, but as a hero.”


 Although the subject is largely tragic, the opera still has a lot of humor, thanks to the incredible wit of Wilde and his friends. This balance of humor and tragedy is perfectly suited to Daniels, said Morrison. “He has the ability to deliver funny lines, which he does magnificently, but more important is his ability to project the deepest human emotion. He does so in a way that few singers do. He becomes Oscar Wilde.”


Daniels, who was not overly familiar with Wilde’s writing but has now become a fan, is bowled over by having an important new opera written specifically for him. “It’s an honor, a really big thing, and it’s really tiring but well worth it. Oscar Wilde as a character and as a mind and as a human being—it’s daunting but exciting.”


It is, as Morrison describes it, a “monster” role for Daniels, and the singer intends to make the most of it as he enters what is likely the pinnacle of his career. 


“My goal is to try to give this as long a life as possible and perform it in as many places as I can. Careers don’t go on forever, so I would like to do it as often as possible. I’ve sung 20 years as countertenor and I don’t feel like I’m slowing down at all. In fact, I now have a confidence level that I didn’t have 10 years ago. I feel like a deeper artist, a better communicator. I actually prefer that to fireworks. More realness, honesty, and…maturity.  Yeah, that’s a good word!  Maturity.”