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PARIS — For an opera singer, the voice is the most fragile of instruments, irreplaceable if it breaks.

So imagine the scare Natalie Dessay had two years ago when, after she began to feel tired and unwell, a doctor discovered a nodule on one of her vocal cords. She underwent microsurgery, not knowing if and how her voice would recover. Slowly, with incredible determination and courage, she slogged through a long retraining process.

This story first appeared in the March 18, 2004 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Now, Dessay, 38, one of the best light sopranos on the circuit, is back. She returned to the Metropolitan Opera stage last year, after which she made a triumphant homecoming to Paris, singing one of her signature roles, Zerbinetta in Richard Strauss’ “Ariadne Auf Naxos.” Dessay currently is gearing up for the May production of Massenet’s “Manon” in Geneva and in August she will perform in “Lucia di Lammermoor” in Santa Fe.

Last fall she released a critically acclaimed recital of French arias on Virgin Classics, which she plans to follow up this year with an album of Strauss songs.

“My voice has changed,” says the petite and easygoing Dessay over tea. “But it’s probably for the best. It’s rounder. It suits me better. It’s more centered. I’m more comfortable [in certain registers] than before.”

Personally, Dessay says she has learned to take life one day at a time.

“Today I want to have fun,” she adds. “Before I took myself too seriously, which wasn’t very interesting. I was too affected by the pressure.”

Dessay’s energetic performance as Zerbinetta in Paris illustrated her newfound and infectious joie de vivre. Dressed in an orange-and-green bikini — accessorized with matching orange hair — she trilled off the impossibly difficult score with mind-boggling effortlessness while jumping onto furniture, zigzagging across the stage, riding piggyback and wooing a lover by gyrating above his body.

“First and foremost, opera is theater,” explains the dark-eyed Dessay, dressed casually in jeans and a blue sweater. “But to be able to do it like that isn’t easy. The work is in making it seem natural and effortless. Enormous amounts of training go into that moment.”

Watching her deftness on stage, it’s unsurprising that Dessay came to opera through theater, which she says was her first love. But at 20, acting in a role that required singing, she discovered that her future was vocal. Five years later, she had won the Mozart competition in Vienna and her career took flight.

She has become known for her remarkable agility, vibrant tone and the exceptional ease with which she hits high notes in such roles as the Queen of the Night in Mozart’s “Zauberflote.”

Dessay says that her newest album of French songs underscores the direction in which she wants her career to evolve. “I want to move more and more into the French repertory,” she says. “French opera of the 19th century is really my cup of tea. I know it well. And, of course, I’m French.”

But Dessay isn’t limiting herself. She appeared this spring on a recording of Monteverdi’s baroque masterpiece, “Orfeo,” and soon will sing Handel, both under the direction of Emmanuelle Haïm, an emerging star in her own right.

And Dessay has a dream for the future. “I want to sing Violetta in ‘La Traviata,’” she says. “I’m not ready for it yet. But I’m sure I could do it by giving the role my own personal spin.”

— Robert Murphy

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