By Kelly Maxwell
In rehearsal, mezzo-soprano Dana Beth Miller carries herself like a dancer. Not intimidated by complicated blocking or choreography, she throws her entire form into her movements with great confidence. It is no surprise, then, to learn that Miller trained as a ballet dancer before transitioning to music. In fact, Miller’s career has been punctuated by transition and change. She made the pointed decision to transition from singing soprano roles (successfully and to great acclaim) to singing mezzo-soprano ones, where she feels more at home with her own instrument. In Hamlet, Shakespeare wrote, “This above all: to thine own self be true.” Miller, portraying Dame Quickly in Falstaff, inspired by the Bard’s The Merry Wives of Windsor and Henry IV, takes that message to heart. Miller sat down with me to discuss her character’s wit and drive, her decision to march to the beat of her own drum, and why Denver is a great opera city.
Before we even get to the music, this opera is a real handful, right?
Exactly. The music is fantastic. It’s like no other Verdi opera. A lot of his previous operas were all death and epic, royal battles. Then there is Falstaff. In rehearsals, we’ve talked about how this was like Verdi’s autobiography and one of the last things that he ever wrote. This is my sixth production of Falstaff, always singing Dame Quickly. I love Quickly and I think she’s fantastic. She’s brash, funny, and unafraid to say what’s on her mind. I feel like she is a real match to Falstaff. She takes him on and immediately sees right through him. It’s a real battle of two equal powers, two smart people, trying to outwit each other.
What has it been like working with this cast so far?
They’re fantastic! They’re really great people who’ve done a lot of opera, and even if they’re new to the role, they’re not new to this business. For example, Sandra Piques Eddy has sung all over the world, but this is her first Meg, and she’s so excited to be doing this. It’s neat to mix a fresh perspective like that with my perspective. I’ve done Falstaff six times and I have all these different ideas from all these other productions. I’ve done it so much that it’s second-nature to me now. I don’t have to worry about the words and whether I’m coming in right, even though it is so much Italian! I know the libretto in my body. But at the same time, it’s nice to see people who are fresh to it because you see things differently together.
Do you have any thoughts on the Shakespearean elements of the libretto?
I think Boito actually improved on it. First of all, he took the highlights from Shakespeare and condensed it. The text, when we’re shouting insults at Falstaff, is just spectacular. It’s this barrage of Italian machine gun fire. I think he took the brilliance of Shakespeare and then made it very Italian—very passionate, very witty, and very dramatic. It’s a brilliant libretto.
Of course, everyone talks about the fugue at the end. Do you have any thoughts on this opera being the final punctuation on Verdi’s storied career?
Verdi had all this tragedy happen in his life; he lost his wife and his children when he was 30 years old. He had this dramatic, theatrical life, but at the end of his life he chose to say, “All the world is a joke,” and we shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously. But what’s funny is that this message is set in this rigid double-quartet/octet fugue, with intricacies and chaos, but it’s so organized! It has an organization and a grand form and scheme to it, but in the middle it’s chaos. It’s a wonderful, beautiful chaos that all makes sense.
So you’ve performed with Opera Colorado before, right?
I was here for Rusalka in 2011 and then I was here for Rigoletto in 2014.
What are your thoughts on working here at Opera Colorado?
I love this company. It’s one of the best companies I’ve worked with in the United States. I think Denver is very lucky to have this level of opera here. Ellie Caulkins gave this city the gift of this beautiful space, the Ellie Caulkins Opera House. I’ve seen the evolution of the company and I think the new administration/rehearsal building—the Opera Colorado Opera Center—is fantastic. In the business, we all know that the artistic quality of this company is so high and they’re also just so good to their artists. They treat us so well here. It’s always a treat to come here because you know it’s going to be a really good. As far as the level of production and the artists, it rivals anything in this country.
How has it been working with this Falstaff team of Opera Colorado Music Director and conductor Ari Pelto and director David Edwards?
I worked with Ari Pelto years ago on the Western Opera Theater Tour, a branch of San Francisco Opera. You would come and do the operas there, and then you would take it all on tour. So, you would sing in the summer, and then in the fall, like October through January you’d be on tour across the United States. So it would give you the chance to sing a role 40 or 50 times instead of just three or four times. We did Die Fledermaus and Ari conducted the first half of the tour on the West Coast. We had a different conductor on the East Coast. But it was so fun to be on the road with him. David is fantastic as well. I’ve never worked with him before, but he’s a true historian. Getting his perspective, as an Englishman, as well as the history he has in his blood, is just fantastic. He’s allowing us to bring our own ideas to the table, while still honoring Shakespeare.
How did you make the decision to pursue opera?
I was actually a ballet dancer until I turned 17 years old. I was a junior in high school, 5’8”, and I had just filled out. I got my contract to dance professionally, but it was a terrible contract. And ballet dancers just don’t last… I’d always been in choir and I had to have some sort of artistic direction in my life. So, the summer before my senior year, I quit ballet cold turkey. I turned to music and I just poured myself into it. I’ve always had a big and sort of mature operatic sound. I made the decision to go to the University of Texas in Denton, which is a huge opera school, and from there on I just kept going. Singing saved me. I don’t know what I would have done if I had not had another artistic outlet.
Do you ever miss ballet?
I do! I’ve thought about taking adult ballet classes and I love watching it. Whenever I’m in cities, I go to the ballet a lot. I watch and understand it from a very technical perspective. It’s still very much a part of me. Now, I feel like it helps me on stage because I did so much choreography for so long. Remembering blocking is always easier for me than some of my colleagues because I was trained to learn choreography, to move to music, and to fill the space on a stage. Looking back, all of that really served me.
Tell me about going from soprano roles to the mezzo roles. What did that transition feel like for you?
I think I always was a mezzo-soprano, but I sang professionally as a soprano for eight years, and then I moved down. You’ll hear I’m basically the contralto role in Falstaff. I’ve always had this low extension to my voice and it’s always been an easy part of my voice. The problem with low voices is they sometimes don’t cut through the orchestra. So you need to have a good combination of low tone, with enough ring in your voice that it cuts right through. I’ve always had it in my voice, but as a soprano, I could never use it. I trained myself to keep my voice high, but I never felt comfortable; I never felt like it was me. I finally just drew a line in the sand and said, “You know what? I just can’t do this anymore.” So I took six months off and just relearned all of the arias. I think the last soprano role I sang was Desdemona in Otello.
I started auditioning as a mezzo-soprano, and I had management that was behind the decision. The thing is, when you declare that kind of change in a voice, at first everyone’s skeptical. I was young, so it wasn’t like I had aged out of soprano roles. People were like, “Well, we just have to hear it.” They wouldn’t believe it until they heard it. Then, when they heard it, they thought, “Oh, yeah, this makes sense.” The year after I switched to mezzo-soprano, I was fortunate enough to get a big contract with Deutsche Oper Berlin. It was a festival contract, which means I was on the roster in their company for two years. In that capacity, I sang 30 roles in two years. So I was fortunate enough to learn all the repertoire that I needed to learn and do it at a high level in Europe, with a fantastic orchestra, a great conductor, and great colleagues. It was the hardest two years of my life, but the most rewarding, too, because it really cemented me as this new thing. Now, the biggest compliment I get is when people say, “I can’t even imagine you as a soprano.” It was a hard, hard change, but it was worth every second.