In conversation with Joyce DiDonato

A few weeks ago Gramophone gave its readers the opportunity to submit their own questions via Facebook and Twitter for acclaimed mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, who has recently released ‘Drama Queens’ with Il Complesso Barocco under conductor Alan Curtis - a disc of royal arias from the 17th and 18th centuries. Watch footage from the album below courtesy of Virgin Classics.

How do you choose a theme for a new CD? Does the topic come first or the music? (Kim Feltkamp ‏@cherubino88)

It varies quite a lot, but my goal is to try and find a unified ‘story’ to tell with each project, so that it's more than just a collection of good tunes but actually carries an emotional thread throughout. In the case of ‘Drama Queens’, I knew I wanted to return to the world of Baroque music, and was pulled strongly to these immense, regal characters. With only a vague idea of the direction I wanted to go, I came up with the title around 3 am one night, and immediately knew it was the theme - so we set out to find brilliant characters and music that would bring this idea to vivid life.

Do you read if you have any spare time and if so what books? Does any of it influence your interpretation? (Dilys @phantomunmasked)

I love to read and love to mix it up. I can be very content with blockbuster escapist novels (The Hunger Games, The Power of One), to biographies (Albert Einstein, Hillary Clinton), to philosophical detours (Loving What Is, The Power of Now). There is no question that everything I encounter in life (books, cinema, museums) helps to form my world view – from this I draw my inspiration and interpretation. I feel that some of the most important assets for an artist are curiosity and imagination, and literature is a great source for feeding those qualities!

Were there any arias that you really wanted to include on 'Drama Queens' but that just didn't make it? (Laura ‏@petrarchian)

We could have done two more complete discs of this repertoire in a flash, no question. Our criteria were a vibrant, contrasting mixture of emotions and colours to make a full portrait of the emotional makeup of these Queens. We recorded ‘Ah, si la libertè me doit être ravie’ from Gluck’s Armide, which wouldn’t fit on the disc due to space, but we've made it available on iTunes. There was also a fun aria from Semiramide by Vinci, but unfortunately, we ran out of time and space to get it done.

Is there any chance to see you in the ‘Drama Queens’ roles on stage? What is the favourite opera production you've been involved in? (@ambiwalencja)

We'll have to see if a theatre is inspired to stage a full opera, but I am scheduled return to Alcina in concert in a few seasons. I honestly cannot choose a favourite production, but I can say that some highlights have been Hercules (Luc Bondy for Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, Opéra National de Paris and Brooklyn Academy of Music), Cendrillon (Laurent Pelly for Santa Fe Opera, Royal Opera House) and the infamous ‘wheelchair’ Barbiere for the Royal Opera House by Caurier and Leiser - the wheelchair not withstanding, it was as close to perfection as I think The Barber of Seville could get with an extraordinary cast and a truly smart production.

Where did you find the manuscripts for the pieces on ‘Drama Queens’? Specifically, the Porta? (RaeAnne Schad ‏@raeannes)

Alan Curtis found most of these treasures in the library in Berkeley. He did a tremendous amount of work to find these hidden gems, and I'm just so happy that the world will have the chance to get to know them now, in a wonderful, new way.

If you had been a man, would you have hoped to be a tenor, baritone or bass? And why? (the part you would most like to play/sing) (Umbrella WellingtonM ‏@UWellingtonM)

Definitely a baritone, for the same reason I love being a mezzo - lots of variety. I think, of course it's obvious, that I would love to play Don Giovanni, but my DREAM role would definitely be Scarpia. No question! I'd have to be the bad guy!

Which is your favourite aria on ‘Drama Queens’? ‘They are all my favourites’ does not count ;) (Korben Hendrik ‏@forckenbeck)

Then I can't answer it!!!! I think they are all so varied, yet so special. If you had a gun to my head, I would say I couldn't live without the Porta (‘Madre diletta’ from Ifigenia in aulide), the Keiser (‘Lasciami piangere’ from Fredegunda) and of course, Cleopatra's masterpieces by Hasse (‘Morte, col fiero aspetto’ from Antonio e cleopatra) and Handel (‘Piangerò la sorte mia’ from Giulio Cesare). But that's four, so you see it really is impossible for me to choose.

How long does it take to learn a new role? How do you approach it? ‏(@BugaMarijaSimic)

For example, I spent a solid year preparing Maria Stuarda, but this was also while keeping up a rather busy schedule! I like to be with a role at least a year away from the premiere, if not intensively studying it, at least living with the musical language and letting it soak in slowly. But then I need at least two months of intensive concentration to really let it come to life and feel like it's in me.

What traits make a great colleague and an inspiring creative environment? Is it different on stage vs recording? (Lauren Jacob ‏@ellejaymezzo)

Colleagues who are open, willing, inventive, listen, and know when to give and take on the stage are the ones who inspire me. If I'm recording, all of those elements need to be there as well, but in practicality it is all about the music. On stage, you need to have partners that will invest dramatically, as well - and for that I ask that they at LEAST make eye contact. (Nothing more frustrating than a partner who won't look at you!) I've been so lucky to work with incredibly generous colleagues who inspire me greatly - that is when it is a total BLAST to do what I do!

Just thank her! She is fabulous! (Margherita Marghi)

Done! And thank you!

What it is like to work with Plácido Domingo? (Sarah Smith)

It is truly awesome (in the real sense of the word!) I'll never forget during The Enchanted Island, we were rehearsing on the stage and had just been put on a break. All of the younger artists fled the stage, went to the canteen, dressing rooms, etc. I was sitting out in the house because they weren't rehearsing my scene, and I looked up on stage and there was Plácido working. He was spacing out his traffic pattern, working with his cape, marking his part, asking how this angle looked, or how his position was. I was dumbfounded to see that the only member of the cast working during a break was the legend himself. It's what I've consistently seen from all the greats I've had the chance to observe: they never, ever stop working. He is also the kindest man on the planet, and hearing THAT VOICE up close? Yes - it was AWESOME!

In interviewing singers I am often struck by their distraction from, and boredom with, the questions of literature and performance technique that seem so interesting to us writers. I would think, given her choice of recorded recitals, that Joyce would be a bit more responsive and interested in such questions than is average. Is this the case? (David Neal Lewis)

Of course it is. My favourite performers are ones who are well read and can bring a wealth of information to their portrayals. I think opera is the culmination of all the great art forms, so how can we DO it without KNOWING it?

You’ve talked about how the decline in music education in schools is a crime. I agree. What would your solution be? Also, why are you so awesome? (Richard Whittington)

The obvious solution to me is simply to get the arts back in every single school. Period. It's not rocket science. But simply get it back into the schools. If that can't happen (which of course it can if we get loud enough), then it must fall on the shoulders of the community. But then not every student is exposed to it, and I think this is necessary. So it must be put back into the schools.

I can't really answer the second part, however… I will say that I believe life is short, and I'm just trying to have a great time along the way!!!

Does it make a difference to the way these arias need to be sung and acted when you're singing alongside a smaller Baroque ensemble, as opposed to a larger orchestra whose volume might overpower some of the more subtle emotional details of this music? (Katherine Hopkins)

Working with a chamber group, as for ‘Drama Queens’, I actually find that I can play much more. There is a greater opportunity to interact directly with the cello, the second violin, the bassoon - to play with colours, to chase them, to weave my sound in and around theirs. That can be harder when an orchestra consists of 75 members and becomes more of a mass entity. I never think of changing my technique between genres or with different groups - I simply listen and react, so the freedom I get with a small group is just off the charts and I LOVE it!

What do you see as the future of opera? What will it look like in the future? (Richard Whittington https://www.facebook.com/richard.whittington.35)

I don't know! I think it will look different (look how different it is even in the last 10 years!), but exactly how, I don't know. I'm up for anything, as long as the quality and sheer excellence of the art form is not compromised. Opera is overflowing with humanity, and I want to exploit that so that anyone could relate to it, and I'm eager to find the ways to help facilitate this! Who has any ideas?!?!!

Watch a video about Joyce DiDonato’s new album, ‘Drama Queens’, below:

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© MA Business and Leisure Ltd. 2014