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Gypsy in Her Soul

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AS THE MUSIC OF A CLASSICAL radio station wafts through her five-bedroom brick colonial house in Leesburg, Va., Denyce Graves sits on a white brocade sofa recalling her childhood on the tough streets of southwest Washington. “I was not popular,” says Graves. “The other kids thought I thought I was better than them. They’d throw rocks at the window and call, ‘We want Hollywood.’ ”

Those kids got it wrong, but not very wrong. Graves did find success. Not in Hollywood, but in Milan, Paris and New York City, where she made her Metropolitan Opera debut Oct. 7 singing the lead in Bizet’s passionate Carmen. At 30, the creamy-voiced mezzo-soprano practically owns the part. “She is the definitive Carmen,” says Martin Feinstein, former general director of the Washington Opera. “She has a beautiful voice with great range. She’s beautiful and sexy. Not only that, she’s very nice.”

Just ask Mom. At the Met, many of the bravas came from Dorothy Graves Kenner, 55, and about 100 friends and relatives, including Denyce’s brother Andre, 33, a postal clerk, and sister Debora, 28, a temp-agency manager. “I had butterflies,” says Dorothy, “but she was magnificent.”

Amid all the adulation, Graves hasn’t forgotten where she came from—or who showed her the way out. Denyce was nearly 2 when her mother separated from her father, Charles, now a Baptist minister. Unwilling to accept government assistance, Dorothy worked first at a laundry, where she starched shirts, and later as a typist at Federal City College in Washington. (Married to maintenance worker Oliver Kenner since 1981, she earned her B.A. in 1985 and works as an administrator at the school, now called the University of the District of Columbia.) A strict disciplinarian determined to keep her three latchkey kids off the streets, Graves’s mom filled their free time with chores and forbade popular music and certain TV shows that she considered demeaning to African-Americans. (One was the ’70s sitcom Good Times, which she banned because she felt that J.J., the Jimmy Walker character, perpetuated an offensive stereotype.) “I would tell my kids there are so many ways to make a living,” she says. “You don’t have to steal or be a hooker.”

Her strictness, though, was tempered by a steady diet of encouragement. “She’d line us up like little ducks,” says Graves, “and tell us we were the most beautiful children, that we were touched by God—not like the other kids we grew up with.”

Deeply involved in a local Pentecostal church, the entire family sang in the choir, but Denyce stood out. “She had a beautiful voice, and I used to push her to the front,” says Dorothy. “I had hoped she might turn out to be a gospel singer.” But after her junior high school music teacher took her to a performance of Beethoven’s Fidelio at the Kennedy Center in 1980, Graves began wondering, “Will I be able to do that someday?” All doubts vanished when another teacher gave her a recording of Marilyn Home singing an aria from Cavalleria Rusticana. “I played it over and over until I became hypnotized,” says Graves. “It was then I said, ‘This is it!’ ”

After working her way through three years at Oberlin College (“I was a pot washer…I made tacos—what didn’t I do?”) and four at the New England Conservatory, Graves, then 23, auditioned to train at the Met. But when illness kept her from joining that first-string company, she wound up apprenticing for two years at the Houston Grand Opera. There her distinctive mezzo attracted attention—and made Carmen her natural role. “Denyce’s voice has a focus right in the place where it should be for Carmen,” says Joseph McLellan, music critic emeritus at The Washington Post. “She’s also a very good actress.”

By now, Graves, who has sung Carmen scores of times opposite such stars as Placido Domingo and José Carreras, is also expanding her repertoire. In February she will sing Dorabella in Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte with the Opera Company of Philadelphia, followed by the role of Dalila in Saint Saëns’s Samson et Dalila at the Washington Opera under artistic director-designate Domingo. “Everyone wants her Carmen, and rightly so,” he says, “But she has much more to offer.”

To be sure, the pace of her professional life—she tours 10 months of the year—has complicated her personal life. By way of illustration, Graves points to the still-half-furnished house she bought 18 months ago with her husband of five years, David Perry, 46, a lutenist and guitar importer she met while performing with the Wolf Trap Opera Company in Virginia in 1989. Her hobbies are reading (most recently, Robertson Davies’s Deptford Trilogy), baking and shopping. As for the family she and Perry would like to start, says Graves, “we keep pushing the date farther back.”

For now, booked to sing Carmen through the year 2000, she wouldn’t have it any other way. “I should send thank-you cards to the kids who didn’t accept me,” she said. “They gave me the drive to go out and show them.”