Out Opera Superstar David Daniels On Breathing New Life Into the Philly Production of Oscar
When Oscar, the opera that examines the downright depressing tale of Oscar Wilde’s love for another man and how it led to his persecution and imprisonment, first opened at the Santa Fe Opera, it was panned by critics. David Daniels, arguably the world’s greatest countertenor for whom the show was written for, openly admits he could care less what those reviewers thought of the show.
“The critics didn’t like it, and I don’t care,” he told me during a rainy Sunday afternoon at the AKA Hotel on Rittenhouse Square. “The audiences loved it. We were playing to houses that were 98 percent full.”
Daniels and I had just come from a cocktail tasting at a.bar, where the staff prepared a new martini in honor of Opera Philadelphia‘s upcoming mounting of Oscar. Wittily called the “Wet and Wilde,” it’s a Miller’s gin-based cocktail with an absinthe wash. It was deadly, in a good way, and the first time Daniels ever had a drink named after him. Nevertheless, I don’t think it was the martini that opened Daniels up to talk so frankly about Oscar. You can sense he’s passionate about the work, almost to a fault, which he tells me was one of the main issues of the Santa Fe staging.
“I got caught up in how emotionally devastating this piece was for me: being a gay man playing a gay man falling in love with another gay man,” he told me. “It was powerful, but I didn’t know how powerful it was until rehearsals began. There would be times when numerous people stopped because everyone was in tears. We got too melancholy about it.”
“So what are you guys doing to change this in Philly?” I asked.
“It’s going to be stronger here,” he said. “We are committed to making the story clearer. You’re going to see the fun side of Oscar.”
Daniels paused for a second. “Look, this has been nine years in development,” he said. “I’ve put money out of my own pocket to do a recording of it. Finally, I found people like Charles MacKay [Santa Fe Opera’s General Director] and David Devan [Opera Philadelphia’s General Director] who took it seriously.”
Daniels would know good music when he hears it: he’s been in the “business,” so to speak, his entire life. He started his journey when he was young by begrudgingly participating in piano lessons that were imposed on him by his parents. Later, he sang as a boy soprano in a children’s choir, and it wasn’t until he completed both undergrad and graduate work that he embraced that his Fach, or voice range, was that of a countertenor.
For those who have no idea what a countertenor is, Daniels explains it this way: “It’s a male alto sound. The easiest way to think of it is that it is higher than a tenor.”
And he’s a talented one, at that: The New York Times once called Daniels “the most acclaimed countertenor of the day, perhaps the best ever,” and he has performed around the world, including The Met Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Glyndebourne Festival, and Teatro alla Scala.
Along the way, he met his husband, musician Scott Walters. The couple’s nuptials were in the public eye for a variety of reasons, mostly because Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg officiated their ceremony. Daniels has become something of an outspoken advocate for gay rights, although he never initially sought out to be one: he has worked with several youth organizations in his home town of Atlanta. While here in Philadelphia, he is teaming up with The Attic Youth Center to bring members of the LGBTQ safe-space to the dress rehearsal of Oscar, and he plans to visit the Center to speak with teens about the message of the show.
“There is so much positiveness in our society [toward LGBTQ people], but for some reason, it’s not getting through to our youth,” Daniels said. “The case of what happened to Oscar Wilde is still relevant: The movie The Imitation Game takes place 50 or 60 years after Wilde, but it is the same thing. A man literally gets chemically castrated over his sexuality. And it’s still happening today: Look at the [LGBTQ] youth suicide rate.”
That’s the message that Daniels is so passionate about, and why he is a firm believer behind Oscar. As we were wrapping up our chat, he asks me a favor: “I hope you can promote [the opera] in a way that people want to see it because of the message,” he said. “Even if you don’t care about opera, audiences should come for the story, for the subject matter.”
Surely, audiences will come for all of those reasons. But they’ll also come for David Daniels.
Oscar plays the Academy of Music February 6-15. For more information, click here.