25 Feb 2022

‘I’m not really interested in superficiality right now, there’s plenty of that’


Joyce DiDonato’s new project asks us to reconnect with the natural world, finds Martin Cullingford – and what better way to do that than simply to stop and listen?

‘The whole thing began as a project about the climate – and I’m not sure what else we should be talking about these days.’ A timely observation. But starting points, like opening chords or opera overtures, are only ever exactly that: beginnings. And like all meaningful journeys, Joyce DiDonato’s latest beautifully conceived and performed album has proved to be an unexpectedly transformative one for her.

Across more than two decades of gracing the world’s stages – and, on several occasions, Gramophone’s cover – the superstar American mezzo-soprano has always encouraged us to think. Initially through bringing insight and humanity to many of opera’s major roles, her desire to take music to audiences beyond traditional venues and formats – a desire that has crystallised into a vocation – has since involved singing in prisons, working on lullabies with new mothers and mentoring young artists, and in more recent years has taken the form of ambitious set-piece projects.

‘Music gives you space to enter into a problem, a question, and to swim around in it a little bit, without the necessity of finding an answer’

The 2018 ‘In War and Peace’ saw DiDonato, Maxim Emelyanychev and Il Pomo d’Oro weave together, for both a recording and a tour, a Baroque programme that aimed, as its subtitle put it, to express a belief in bringing about ‘harmony through music’. ‘We saw the power that placing great music into a narrative, one that is meant to really target something that we’re facing today as a society, can have,’ she recalls. That project was a response to the 2015 terror attacks in Paris, though it’s a vision that is ultimately applicable to countless situations worldwide, and will continue to be so for as long as humans walk the planet. Which brings us neatly on to DiDonato’s new project, ‘EDEN’. What began with the seed of seeking to address climate concerns turned into something almost philosophical as DiDonato and her companions began to reassess their relationship to the natural world through music – and they now encourage us to do the same.

This article has no need to repeat the environmental issues underpinning the project: climate change, our contribution to that and, most crucially, how to address it, fills hours of broadcasting, screenfuls of social media and pages of newspapers, daily. But this brings a danger shared by all issues that command and demand public discourse in our communication-saturated age: complexity can be lost in cacophony, nuance in noise; urgency can lead to stridency; and information overload can lead to a sense of confusion, helplessness and even fear or – just as worrying – alienation. Sometimes we need to step back from the fray in order to see more clearly, and to understand more deeply; to accept that questions won’t always lead to answers, or at least not to the ones we expected. Art can do that – it always has.

‘The gift of music – and in particular, in my case, music that is theatrical: a song or an aria which has a story to it – is that it invites you to just stop,’ says DiDonato. ‘It gives you space to enter into an emotion, a thought, a problem, a question, and to swim around in it a little bit, without the necessity of finding an answer or coming to a conclusion. It just lets you be present in it, and in those magic moments time is suspended. That’s an extraordinary thing that is more and more precious, because everything today is rushed, everything is on fast forward, everything demands a reply.’

Though ‘EDEN’ – a journey through diverse composers’ explorations of our relationship to the natural world – is released as an album, it’s designed as a concert programme too, and arguably it’s in its live incarnation that it might best provide an antithesis to modernity’s media ubiquity. An auditorium is an environment where, as DiDonato puts it, ‘you can’t hit a fast-forward button, and you can’t skip the recitative – you’ve got to sit through the build-up to the aria, and it takes away the pressure of time, too. It invites you just to come in, without having to pick a side, without having to take personal responsibility – it just allows you to stop and to feel, and to receive something. I think in today’s world it’s perhaps more pertinent and important than ever.’ There is, DiDonato says, great power in ‘sitting in a venue, side by side with strangers, with everybody taking the leap of trust to say, “We’re not sure exactly what it’s going to be, but we’re in this together.” It’s quite a defiant, rebellious act in a way.’

And it’s an act that has taken on an even more precarious and thus precious place in our lives these past pandemic years. Even as I talk to DiDonato, on the phone while she’s in Luxembourg preparing for a performance of Handel’s Theodora, venues are being silenced and borders closed once again. A reassessment of what a concert can be, indeed what it is, is a natural response to our uncertain era. ‘I’m speaking from a place of privilege in that I’ve had 22 years of a pretty extraordinary career, and I can’t say there’s a whole lot that I’ve left undone in many ways, so I don’t feel a burning sense that there’s so much more that I have to do,’ she says. DiDonato’s priorities, then, have shifted: ‘Any time I step on stage, I want to make sure that it’s contributing to healing, to provoking people into a place of empathy and understanding, and trust and community – that’s where I want to put my energy. I’m talking as if I’m done – I’m not saying I’m done! – but the preciousness of every note feels very, very acute, the preciousness of every concert … I’m not really interested in superficiality right now, there’s plenty of that. I’m going to do my best to bring substance that I feel strongly about, and hope that it touches people.’

When it comes to introducing a journey that aims to be exploratory and embracing rather than direct and didactic, it’s hard to think of a work better suited than Charles Ives’s The Unanswered Question. Below lies an ethereal foundation of strings while, above it, a repeated question is greeted by evermore frantic stabs at a solution, before the question is asked one final time: but for whom? For us? ‘When those strings start, it’s the endless tapestry of the cosmos, to my mind,’ says DiDonato who, in this version, wordlessly asks the question more familiarly voiced by the trumpet. ‘We are made of the stars, and so it feels a little bit like coming home. And this idea of the questions: well, I had a lot of questions three years ago and they have exponentially compounded since! And I don’t think I’m alone in that.’ As to the question itself, DiDonato describes it as: ‘a simple utterance: it could be tonal, it could be atonal; it’s simple, it’s ambiguous; and the responses become more and more cluttered and chaotic and indecipherable. And there are no more answers. But the question remains. It hangs and is never answered. That tapestry underneath is in perfect harmony, perfect balance, undulating a bit, like the ocean, like sound waves. And we’re more aware of that by the end of the piece, because we’ve asked the question and we’ve experienced the dissonance and the chaos. So how we experience it at the end is very different to how it reaches us at the beginning. It has not changed. But we have. We have experienced something different. And I think that is what music does to us, it’s what dissonance does to us. It’s what I’m hoping the pandemic has done for us. I’m not convinced of it yet, but that’s another discussion! But how much more dissonant can the globe get right now?’

Ives’s piece also sets the tone in terms of where the repertoire might go, which is, in short, anywhere at all. The programme emerged from late-night discussions during that 2018 ‘In War and Peace’ tour, conversations during which it was decided that ‘no repertoire was out of the question’. The result roams free in its exploration of the topic, and is a compelling example of the concept album, an increasingly invigorating trend among musicians to construct programmes that range far and wide, and which, crucially, when listened to from beginning to end, impart far more than the sum of their parts. Thus from Ives we move to a new work by the Academy Award-winning British composer Rachel Portman, then to a song from Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder, then back to the 17th century for Biagio Marini, while later works include Valentini’s Sonata enharmonica plus excerpts from Cavalli’s La Calisto, Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice and Handel’s Theodora. There’s also more Mahler (again from the Rückert-Lieder), ‘Schmerzen’ from Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder and Copland’s setting of Emily Dickinson’s Nature, the gentlest mother.

DiDonato commissioned Portman after feeling that the composer was ‘on the same kind of journey as myself, getting more connected to nature’, something reflected in Portman’s recent work Leaves and Trees, an imagined depiction of being in the upper branches of a beech tree in late spring. For the text, she approached Gene Scheer, who had previously collaborated on Moby-Dick with Jake Heggie. The result was a work entitled The First Morning of the World. ‘When he sent back the text, the title took my breath away, it was completely different to what I had expected. He picked up so beautifully this questioning, and this searching. It’s not trying to construct a Biblical Eden, or an Eden that suggests “everything is going to be OK” – it’s not naive at all. He sets up this idea of disconnect in the piece – the work takes us away from Eden, and yet there is something in the language of nature, in the rings of trees, in the wind and the river … Hopefully by the end of the album we’ve learned how to sing, like a canopy of leaves.’

As to how the programme was compiled, it sounds like the debate was an enjoyably lively one. ‘I was always coming at it from a narrative point of view, and Maxim and Giulio [d’Alessio, who co-founded Il Pomo d’Oro in 2012] were always coming at it from a musical point of view. And I have to say, I was the stronger insister! Because the whole idea of this is not that it’s a symphonic programme, or a recital, but that it’s a narrative. And this for me was super important because I want to bring people on a journey, and so we broke a lot of traditional rules about keys and different things like that. For example, around the Valentini being followed by the Cavalli: Maxim had a really difficult time with the tonality, saying, “It can’t follow that, it’s not possible,” and I said, “That’s exactly why it works from a narrative point of view!” The Valentini is quite a cerebral piece, about man trying to make things work, and it gets drier and drier and more and more desolate and mechanical, and then it disappears – and from that we go into the real destruction of what we’re living right now, Cavalli’s ‘Piante ombrose’, where everything is dying and the green is fading. I found that juxtaposition, which is perhaps theoretically incorrect in a musical scholarship way, to be haunting and so evocative of what I feel like we’re living right now. These things that are actually angular and difficult and challenging.’

But perhaps the project’s seed lies further back still. DiDonato recalls a safari trip taken at least 15 years ago. ‘It was just at the time that the climate crisis was starting to come into the vernacular,’ she recalls, ‘and all of a sudden you couldn’t get away with thinking that everything was OK. It was sundown, and I could see in every direction, and it was one of the most staggering sights I’d ever seen. I had this fantastic ranger and I said to him, “This is so amazing, you must be really upset with what we’re doing to the world.” And he looked at me and said, “You know, mother nature’s going to be just fine, this is going to take care of itself. We’re extinguishing ourselves – but the planet’s going to be fine.” And he said it with such matter-of-factness that it changed my life, and I never looked at anything the same after that.

‘The rangers would also explain how a particular plant is very vulnerable, but omits a scent that repels predators, so knows how to survive here. And I thought, if human beings just get out of the way and stop taking more than we need to take, stop consuming more than we need to consume, there is an inherent perfect balance that exists in nature. I feel that we have distorted and disturbed it but it is now correcting. And when things are left alone – the Galápagos Islands, or now Chernobyl – there is a natural equanimity between plants and animals, and life and death, and plague and famine, and rains and storms, and this extraordinary dance exists in perfect balance … We seem to forget that we are part of an incredible, magnificent, perfect structure that is much bigger than ourselves, and when we forget that, when we are pulled further and further away from that, we bring imbalance. And that’s what we’re living now.’ As she puts it in an essay she wrote as an introduction to the project, she hopes that the album ‘is a clarion call to consider if our collective suffering and confusion isn’t perhaps linked to the aching separation from something primal within and around us’.

If it’s a journey for the listener, so too has it been for DiDonato. ‘As I dug into the music, and as I dug into the narrative journey that this will be, I thought, no, it’s not enough to solve the climate crisis. We can pass some regulations, and get the temperature to where it needs to be, and maybe we can escape doomsday, but we’re still left with this separation within ourselves that allows us to be one against the other, that allows us to consume much more than we need. That allows us to trash our planet without any consciousness. That is what ultimately ‘EDEN’ needs to be about – that within our own selves is how we can find a place of connection and peace and tranquillity.’

And so we’re back to the seed that music might sow for an audience. Literally, in fact: every person attending a concert as part of the tour will leave with some seeds to plant. ‘It’s a small gesture, a tiny gesture – but give them some water, a bit of light, and look what a little bit of effort can do. Sometimes it’s good to be literal!’ And metaphorical as well, for the tour will also contain a companion education element involving youth choirs wherever it travels: ‘We want to build a forest of kids singing around the globe as we go!’

Talk of travelling around the globe raises an awkward paradox: that touring, sharing art internationally, necessarily has an environmental impact. ‘Absolutely. And I can’t guarantee it will be a perfect tour in that regards. There will be moments when we take flights. But we’re trying to do it with as minimal an impact as we can. We will obviously have to fly to get into a continent, but between that we’re doing ground transportation.’ One interesting outcome of moving progressively from city to city in such a fashion is that they will visit locations where DiDonato hasn’t performed before. She acknowledges it’s a complex issue, and while they haven’t yet worked out all the details, she hopes that what they eventually come up with might prove to be a blueprint for other such tours that follow.

By way of an encore, the album ends with ‘Ombra mai fù’, Handel’s hymn to a tree and its welcome shade, taken from the opera Serse but also one of the composer’s most beloved standalone arias. ‘That had to be there,’ DiDonato says. ‘Because nothing happens. It’s just basking in the admiration, the observation, the wonderment of something so simple. And most of us, if we’re lucky, have had that feeling at least once in our lives, when you’re looking at a lake, or the ocean, or a tree in spring, or the top of the mountain, or a new baby – that it’s so perfect. It’s Eden. It’s a moment simply to be present. No action required. Just enter that space and remember that this is here all the time. We have trees around us all the time, and they’re all giving shade, they’re all amazing. We have the sun blazing over us every day. We have newborn babies coming into this world every day. We’re surrounded by Eden every day.’