When Natalie Dessay performs before the world’s most discerning opera audiences, the stakes are high and the pressure is enormous. However, what those fans and critics may not know, is among the tools in her most impressive tool box—her yoga practice—is where she draws strength to help deal with the difficult challenges and the stress of preparing for new productions and performances. The French coloratura already has 23-years of singing opera under her small-sized belt, plus plenty of acting and dancing studies. But, she said, “it’s yoga that helps me survive.” As Cleopatra’s Metropolitan Opera's Guilio Ceasare—the demands on her were very intense.
Natalie let the world in on her secret weapon during an intermission interview in New York City with fellow opera star Renee Flemming. It happened live, between acts two and three of Handel’s most popular opera, part of the Met's Live in HD movie series. After delayed broadcasts and encore performances, about 200,000 people in 61 countries will be in on her yoga secret. When asked what special physical training she does to handle the demands of the difficult role Natalie said, “yes, I thought it was going to be difficult, so I went to yoga every day—and I still go to yoga every day since two months, so look!,” - flexing a well developed bicep. Flemming then said she was impressed with Natalie’s intense concentration and focus during the production, and again, yoga got the credit. “I think yoga helped me a lot for that also, because when you do yoga, for one hour and a half you only concentrate on your body and the physical feelings and sensations. And that’s exactly the same as with opera.”
Natalie Dessay’s introduction to yoga came about four years ago through Charles MacKay, the general director of the Santa Fe Opera and a yogi for many years. The pair were preparing for her first-ever performances as Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata. Natalie fondly remembers her first class, Iyengar, with MacKay. “It was in the morning, outside, in the summer in New Mexico,” she said. “That was like a dream.” She could see benefits right away. “It was preparing me to go through rehearsal,” Natalie said. “It was preparing me physically, of course, but also mentally for the concentration and the desire to go to work. It was sort of an awakening of the body and the spirit.”
In spite of her demanding career, busy travel schedule and life as a wife and mother, Natalie still prefers group classes to private instruction. At her home outside of Paris, she now studies with an Ashtanga teacher and gets pleasure from sharing the class with others. “For the moment, I can’t do it just for myself and just with myself, I need the energy of the group and I need the teacher in front of us because otherwise I don't challenge myself the same way,” she said.
Her experience with poses runs the gamut from joy to struggle. Tears came when for the first time in her life she could bend over and reach her knees with her face. “I have a very, very painful back so backbends for me are very difficult," she said. She favors twists (tortions, as she calls them in French,) forward bends, child’s pose, legs up against the wall and the hip openers, which benefit her low back. Her favorite pose? "Tree, because it's my best." “I'm very very sensitive with music, so if it’s not that good I notice it and I go out of my concentration,” she noted. For practicing on her own, it would be without music and she “would listen to her body and concentrate on that.”
As to breathing, Natalie finds it difficult to follow someone else’s rhythm. It’s confusing when a teacher says to inhale here and exhale there “but when she says do it your own way then it's much better.” The opening class rituals are another favorite—“ohming,” bringing the hands together in prayer position, sitting and mantras. “It’s not gymnastics,” she said, “yoga’s not there to give us muscles.” She said perhaps yoga has helped her loose weight and she has started to avoid sugar. She likes the fact that not all teachers are skinny. “Every body can do yoga, it’s not like dance where a dancer has to be skinny. If you’re comfortable with your body, then that's the point.” Comfort for her is also in the stylish yoga clothes she prefers to wear. “With a coat in the winter, without a coat in the summer,” she said.
“For once in my life it’s not something that you have to achieve, the failure or the succeed is not what counts. The travel is what counts and I was not used to that. I was used to getting results, to be good at once, to be able to do it right away. With yoga you have to be patient, you have to be strict with yourself but also kind with yourself. And that’s very new to me.”