16 Jan 2023

San Francisco Classical Voice

The lyric mezzo-soprano is perhaps not the splashiest voice type, but occasionally a voice is so impressive that its possessor becomes a sensation. That certainly happened for Joyce DiDonato.

Beginning her career in the 1990s, DiDonato jumped through many of the biggest hoops in opera, completing an impressive training program trifecta as a young artist with Santa Fe Opera, San Francisco Opera, and Houston Grand Opera. While accruing a bevy of honors, including the prestigious Richard Tucker Award, she began to build a diverse repertoire, making good use of a remarkable coloratura facility in roles by Handel and Rossini. A knack for pants roles made her a natural and beloved Cherubino in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro at major houses in the U.S. and Europe; her portrayal of Octavian in Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier at SF Opera in 2007 won effusive acclaim. Though her repertoire has evolved, with certain more ingenuous roles falling by the wayside, the voice continues to earn high praise. A recent turn as Virginia Woolf in the Metropolitan Opera’s sensational premiere of Kevin Puts’s The Hours won DiDonato a standout rave.

If you ever have the chance to see DiDonato before a performance, it might be best not to say “break a leg.” The singer once slipped onstage performing the role of Rosina in The Barber of Seville at Covent Garden and fractured her fibula. (The accident happened in Act 1. She finished the show on crutches — and the rest of the run in a wheelchair.) DiDonato’s work ethic is also evident in her desire to nurture the next generation, which led to a recurring series of master classes at Carnegie Hall.

But perhaps most distinctive have been the singer’s own solo projects, which are like recitals on steroids and have been preserved on award-winning recordings. DiDonato’s Songplay won the Grammy Award for Best Classical Solo Vocal Album in 2020, her third Grammy. Like her 2016 project War and Peace, the singer’s latest recital, Eden — which comes to California this month, with stops at La Jolla Music Society (Jan. 18), Stanford Live (Jan. 20), Cal Performances (Jan. 21), and UC Santa Barbara Arts & Lectures (Jan. 24) — is a collaboration with the period-instrument ensemble Il Pomo d’Oro and employs visual and theatrical elements.

But the performances are also intended to support the singer’s broader interests and causes. Released as an album on the Erato label last year, Eden is on a five-continent tour that will include the participation of teaching artists in each city the program visits. Local children’s choirs will also be involved, and audience members will receive native seeds in keeping with the recital’s themes of nature and connection thanks to Botanic Gardens Conservation International.

If there can be said to be a downside to such a far-reaching and ambitious career, it might be a lack of time. Unable to offer an in-person interview, DiDonato replied to a series of email questions.

You have built a career made up of long-term musical relationships, returning to collaborate with the same ensembles and conductors again and again. You’ve said it’s like building a family, which includes the audience of a given place. Was there a moment or turning point in your career when you decided to do that consciously?

It actually hasn’t been a conscious decision but something that has evolved quite organically. When the opportunity arises for a new project or concert, I want to know that I’m working with people that inspire me, share the same vision for what we’d like to share with the audience, and people that help me find things in the music and performance that I can’t find on my own.

What does it feel like to retire a role that has been really important to you? What is the process of deciding to retire it like, and is there a sense of loss after?

It becomes quite clear to me when I’ve explored a role as much as I think I can, or want to. I’ve felt great about the amount of time I’ve spent with every role I’ve sung, so that satisfaction means I can move on to the next with a lot of gratitude, not much grief.

Is there a composer you didn’t particularly like or relate to when you were younger whom you have grown to appreciate?

I’ve been surprised at how the German repertoire (Schubert, Mahler, Wagner) has begun to resonate with me. It’s not that I didn’t like it, but I simply didn’t feel called to it. But that is changing, and it’s been a wonderful gift.

Do you make New Year’s resolutions? Are there any you’d like to share? Or how do you reexamine your life at this time of year?

I tend to do that on a daily basis, working each day to build the life I’d like.

You were singled out for a great review in the cast of The Hours recently, and I’m sure this has happened to you many times. Does that affect you, or is it hard to navigate within a cast when something like that occurs?

My focus is always on being the best performer I can be, and that often comes directly from observing and learning from my colleagues. When we are on the stage, I only want to be surrounded with people that share the same goal of storytelling that I do, and so any sense of competition in that regard has no place on the stage. That’s a bit of a sport that others may be tempted to play offstage, but my only goal is for the audience to have as rich and profound an experience as possible, which means every element of an opera or concert needs to be full throttle. That’s my goal. The rest is for others to do with what they like.

Your work encompasses some grand visions, involving many artists and educational offshoots. I wonder what imaginative or creative space you make in your life to hold these ideas as they are emerging, since there is a long road from inspiration to realization. Do you have a journaling time daily or a visioning time each week?

I simply try to leave space for the ideas and inspiration to arrive. I turn to nature a lot, some meditation and physical work, and a lot of time with the music. If I leave enough space, I find that the project tells me what it needs to be.

Let’s talk about Eden. How do you manage that vocally, changing gears between languages and styles? Does it come down to not singing too heavily too soon, or is it a matter of programming the different songs and arias in the right order?

One of the elements I love about Eden is that it really reflects how I have built my career. I’ve sung music of these past four centuries since the beginning of my training, and it really has made me who I am as a performer and musician, so Eden, which has a wide breadth of repertoire, feels like coming home to me. My approach is the same as it always has been: sing what is at hand with full commitment, total conviction, and dedication to the text, and with my voice. If I can manage that, I can sing all night long!

My second question about Eden is about the show as an opportunity to explore humanity’s relationship with nature. Could you share some of your own most meaningful experiences in nature?

A perfect example of how nature has taught me was at the start of the pandemic, and I was watching bulbs I had planted in the fall (months before we had heard of COVID), and these bulbs were pushing miraculously and easily out of the ground, taking root, and bursting forth in the most wondrous colors and scents. They were simply doing what they were born to do, regardless of cancellations and masks and vaccines and inconveniences. It literally took my breath away day after day. Any time I have faced tragedy in my life, I have found myself walking a path in the mountains, clinging to the stars in the night sky, or swimming in the sea and feeling, almost immediately, all the smallness of the moment wash away. Nature has always been there to give me her perspective. One of my favorite sayings is a Serbian proverb: “Be humble for you are made of earth. Be noble for you are made of stars.” I call on that sentiment quite often.

How has your work with young singers changed as they are facing new challenges, including more auditioning via video? Or do you think it is more difficult for singers these days to learn how to really connect with an audience when more and more of people’s lives are spent online?

What I see with the young artists that have had their training drastically altered over the past three years is the absence of the “micro performing steps” they would normally have taken while in school. In my undergrad, we had weekly studio classes, and we’d all sing a piece we were preparing. Those would lead to the monthly master classes and the odd recitals that you’d participate in. Each one of those was a wealth of learning and experience. I think having those taken away for a year or more did have big effects. But I marvel at the resilience of these young artists because they are fighting their way back onto the stage and working three times as hard because it is inside of them. They deserve our full support right now.