From her early childhood, opera diva of the future Natalie Dessay and her parents knew that whatever path their wunderkind daughter took it would lead her to the theatre. However, she dreamed of cinema as well, dropping the “h” from Nathalie to spell her name like Natalie Wood whom she adored. Her well-made figure gave her a good chance of becoming a ballerina, her passion for speech and declamation opened up dramatic opportunities, while her third talent – her voice – defined the main direction of the young Dessay’s serious studies. At the age of twenty (instead of twenty-three or twenty-four as is normally the case) she was already a graduate of the Bordeaux Conservatoire with a first-class degree. For several years, she sang with the chorus of the Opéra de Toulouse, then she entered the New Names competition where she took second place and received a grant to train at the Atelier Lyrique of the Opéra de Paris, and in 1992 she made her debut as Olympia in Les Contes d’Hoffmann. The appearance of this new star in Paris had a widespread resonance. One year later Dessay sang as the coquette Blondchen in Die Entführung aus dem Serail at the Wiener Staatsoper, after which she received myriad offers from the Metropolitan Opera, La Scala, Covent Garden, the Opéra de Lyon, the Theater an der Wien, the Liceu, the Grand Théâtre de Génève and the Aix-en-Provence Festival among others.
Her numerous performances of the extremely complex coloratura soprano role of the Queen of the Night in Die Zauberflöte proved to be a landmark. Theatres have waged war to sign Dessay for as many performances as possible. Virgin Classics has concluded an exclusive deal with her, and in addition to theatre performances the singer is now recording a great deal. By the start of 2000, Dessay’s repertoire included such roles as Ofelia, Olympia, Aminta (Richard Strauss’ Die Schweigsame Frau), Lulu and Zerbinetta. At this time Dessay began to restructure her voice for other heroines – she had a fervent desire to perform in bel canto operas, which she has done and continues to do. She has been an amazing Lucia in Lucia di Lammermoor, Amina in La sonnambula and Marie in La Fille du régiment. Many of her performances have been recorded on DVD.
The singer’s latest interest is the operas of Massenet and her favourite heroine Manon Lescaut, the Verdian repertoire, the verists (she made a successful debut as Musetta at the Opéra de Paris in November 2009) and the impressionists (she received tremendous acclaim in Pelléas et Mélisande).
Paying tribute to her enthusiasm for theatre, Dessay never turns down the chance to perform in operettas by Offenbach, and when she performs this repertoire in Paris it is all but impossible to obtain a ticket – they are all sold half a year in advance.
After an enforced absence from the stage for medical treatment, Dessay has returned and is once again immersed in the world of bel canto. The series of her performances in La sonnambula this spring was hailed as a triumphant return.
Dessay normally stages her recital programmes as short performances – changing her dresses, hairstyles and shoes, though sometimes she is very serious and appears in severe black suits with an equally severe hairstyle. In April Dessay celebrated two anniversaries – her forty-fifth anniversary and her twenty-five years on stage.