Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato is headed back to Ireland. The singer, born Joyce Flaherty in Kansas in 1969 into an Irish-American family that was musical on both sides, has been a regular visitor to Ireland since her first appearance here with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in 2015.
She returned in 2017 with a programme titled In War and Peace: Harmony through Music, and is back at the National Concert Hall on Saturday, April 9th, with the nature-focused Eden, again with the period-instruments players of il Pomo d’Oro under conductor Maxim Emelyanychev, a Russian musician who has felt need to speak out and say, “I cannot stay silent. I am against the war in Ukraine.”
Covid put an end to the programme of My Favourite Things she was due to perform here in May 2020. So when we spoke over Zoom I asked her first how the global pandemic and its lockdowns had been for her. “Complicated,” she replied. “I think I’m one of the lucky ones that used it as a kind of sabbatical, a kind of rest. Which I think I needed in my life but would have never given myself permission to take.
“I was able to be in the countryside, in a house that my partner and I had bought about two years earlier, but had never spent much time in, and were starting to regret it, thinking, oh, we’re not meant for life in the countryside. Then Covid hit and it feels like now it’s the only place I want to be.”
In relation to herself, DiDonato focuses on the positives. She has never regretted being a mezzo-soprano rather than a soprano. “Not for one day. I’ve occasionally wanted to be a baritone. I just feel like I won the lottery several times over with my repertoire. Because I’m not stuck to one genre, I’m not stuck to even one gender or one stereotype. I play princes and queens, bad ladies and villains, hopeful innocent people, and in the case of Octavian or Cherubino, roles that take such huge growth trajectories. No. I love my repertoire.”
Being offstage, away from live audiences and the richly communicative environments of opera houses and concert halls, has been very difficult for performers, not just for the financial or emotional deprivation that’s involved, but also in terms of maintaining their craft. And the human voice, including the singing voice, reflects lived experiences in a way no other instrument can.
She concentrates on the positives in relation to that, too. “Mainly because I was able to rest. And in my case I don’t think it was so much about resting the voice. It was resting my body as a whole, and my brain. Especially as an opera singer, you know, our brain is going a hundred miles an hour almost constantly. And I hadn’t really had the opportunity in almost 20 years – probably 25 years – to have a real, proper rest.
“The other thing, because I didn’t have the pressure of performing, I was able to go back and do some studying, just vocal work, without having to produce anything. Without having to produce a new role, or a new recording. It was simply the luxury of going back, quietly, slowly, almost starting from scratch. I feel the effect of that now. I feel really rested. I feel like I’ve gained some wonderful colours and freedom from these last couple of years. That was really intentional. I thought, okay, I want to go through this really intentionally and carefully, and go back to ground zero and, just see what it is to meet my voice where it is now.”
Has she come out of it all with a new perception of work/life balance? “I think so. I certainly intend to. But you’re catching me at the start of a tour. And there’s nothing balanced about a tour. It’s just intense. But there are more breaks worked into my schedule now. Time to recover. And time to go back into some silence and make sure that that creative fire is always stoked and burning.”
While she was grateful for the quiet and the silence in her life, she was also distraught about “what I was seeing the world go through, my industry go through”. In particular she voices concerns about younger performers. “There are a lot of singers that were just getting started, and ready to burst onto the scene when everything stopped. That’s a really critical moment for a lot of young artists, to continue the momentum, and have the chance to show what they can do. And that being ripped away was a really heart-breaking thing to see.”
Relationship with nature
She found time “to really evaluate things in my life, and what I want to do going forward. At that point the project Eden was already in motion, it was in the beginning stage of development. Without question the entire severity and enormity of Covid really had a big impact on the way that this project developed.”
The very title, Eden, sounds optimistic. Does the project, which leaps forwards and backwards through the centuries for musical connections, feel as relevant now as it did when she first conceived it? “It feels more relevant, but in such a different way than I’d expected. Because this originally was focused on climate and our relationship with nature.”
She explains that “When I have a real encounter at the beach or on a mountain top or under a tree, my thought goes to we have to take better care of this. And so my hope was to take a different approach to talking about our environment and our planet, and that is one of saying, look how beautiful it is. Look how much extraordinary benevolence there is in the world around us, and let’s participate in building that up and taking care of that. Rather than being just another siren and alarm, because there’s a lot of that as well. I just fear that not many people are listening to that call.”
As it developed, she saw it wasn’t really just about the climate. “I thought, in a wild world, Eden becomes a movement, and it helps to stop carbon emissions. Let’s say we avoid a climate disaster and we put a band-aid on it and we save ourselves for a little bit, I’m still left with real concern, because there are so many other elements of the world that I see that distress me.”
She frames her concerns as being about mé féinery. “There’s this disconnect within people at large, within communities, within nations, that we’re not taking care of each other. And that’s the bigger question that Eden morphed into in these last two years. And, sure enough, when the invasion of Ukraine happened, it was this exact topic manifest in such a cruel, vicious, violent, extreme way. And it is that, what is it that allows one human being to wreak destruction on another? That can be what we’re seeing Putin do, and it can also be a kid who’s 10 years old and bullying somebody else. It’s a parallel disconnect.
War and plague
“One is obviously much more extreme. But that’s the thing that I think Eden is addressing. I don’t know if it’s optimistic or not. I suppose inherently it is, because I kind of cling to my optimism, belligerently so, I sometimes say. I am ultimately optimistic. The music itself and the narrative of the concert shows what it is when you sit under the perfumed lindenbaum tree and you feel the perfect spring day, and everything is in harmony, everything is balanced, and everything is fantastic, and you’re so deeply connected and present in that moment. And then you’re ripped away because of war and because of plague and because of desolation and you’re left on your own, and you have these two extremities that we demonstrate through the music, spanning several centuries.”
Like her In War and Peace tour, Eden is a fully produced show rather than a stand-and-deliver concert experience. “I love being a storyteller. So, in opera, you just get to disappear completely into the arc of a character from beginning to end. And that’s thrilling. In a concert or recital it’s a bit more like flying without a parachute, because you don’t have the sets, you don’t have the costume, oftentimes you don’t have the lighting, and it’s a bit more work to pull the audience into a completely different atmosphere.
“But I like that challenge. It’s one of the reasons with Eden that we’ve actually created more of a hybrid experience. It’s sort of between an opera and a concert and a recital. It doesn’t fit neatly into a particular category. But I think it really is a great demonstration of the scope of the kind of performing I love to do. Which is quite theatrical, but also really with the emphasis on the music as well.”
And it’s also intended as a challenge. “It’s basically saying when you leave the concert hall, what are you going to contribute to building the world? What seeds are you planting? What are you bringing to the table? Right now, today, under these circumstances? And we see, you know, a very powerful few that are trying to grab more power, no matter the cost of human life and destruction and culture and everything that’s being wreaked, and you see millions of other people coming together and leaving strollers at the border and sending food and sending aid, and joining together. We see the extremity of both, of the connection and care, and total destruction. Eden is there to just point out the possibility of both, and when you leave this concert hall which world are you going to participate in building?”