Joyce DiDonato has travelled a long, winding road since that traumatic moment in 1997 when a judge at a song competition in London told her, point blank, that she had ‘nothing to offer as an artist.’ Although the criticism, proffered by none less than the illustrious British pianist and song accompanist Graham Johnson, came, she says, as ‘a kick in the gut’ to the young, insecure American singer, she now regards it as precisely the constructive advice she needed to force her to re-examine, rebuild and deepen her relationship to her art – to discover what she really had to say through singing. The result is a smart, accomplished, vivacious yet modest mezzo-soprano, whose peerless Rossini, not to mention passionate Handel, stylish Mozart and all the other music in her arsenal, have made the self-styled ‘Yankee diva’ the toast of opera theatres and recital halls on two continents.
DiDonato is at the top of her game, and bel canto is its name. This month brings the DVD release, on Virgin, of the now world-famous Covent Garden production of Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia in 2009 in which the mezzo, who was performing as Rosina, tripped on a metal rail, breaking her fibula. She finished the show on a crutch, completing the run with her leg in a bright pink cast while navigating the set in a wheelchair. Her ultra-supportive colleagues on stage included Juan Diego Flórez (Almaviva) and Alessandro Corbelli (Bartolo), along with Antonio Pappano in the pit. DiDonato’s performance, not to mention her plucky determination, was rapturously applauded and she became an instant darling of the European press. That attention can only have fuelled anticipation of her two major bel canto role-debuts this year. The first will be Elena in Rossini’s La donna del lago, which she will introduce at Geneva’s Grand Théâtre this month before the show moves to the Paris Opéra for a further six performances in June. In August she will sing her first Adalgisa in Bellini’s Norma, opposite soprano Edita Gruberova, at the Salzburg Festival.
In a field rife with backstage bitchery and petty jealousies, you won’t hear anybody badmouthing Joyce DiDonato. Everybody, but everybody, seems to like her. To fellow singers, opera administrators and others in the music business she is the consummate professional, a superb musician, discerning stylist and model colleague committed to giving her very best, regardless of the situation.
‘Joyce is just a lovely person and artist, in every possible way,’ says Philip Gossett, the noted Rossini scholar who recently retired as a professor of music at the University of Chicago. ‘The ‘Yankee diva’ role really works for her. I had the good fortune of following some of the recording sessions she did for her recent Virgin Classics recording of Rossini arias, ‘Colbran, the Muse’, and I have to say that I was just astonished by how she was able to use her voice and the language so beautifully together. It’s been a long time since I’ve heard anyone able to pronounce words so musically and so completely, so that what you hear is a kind of amalgam of words and music that we think of as being the heart of what makes wonderful opera. Joyce really does it, and that’s so rare in this world.’
‘Joyce is setting new standards in her repertoire,’ agrees Roger Pines, the dramaturg for Lyric Opera of Chicago who’s also a record annotator, lecturer and radio broadcaster. ‘She does it through a combination of timbre, technique, musicality and charisma for which ‘incomparable’ is the only adequate word. But what puts her in a special category is, above all, her individuality – the way she defines a character or sings a song is uniquely hers. She comes to any piece with a precise idea of what she wants to accomplish vocally and interpretatively, and everything she does has tremendous imagination. Her Handel and Rossini performances create a special anticipation in an audience because her ornamentation is so distinctive, making even a thrice-familiar aria – ‘Una voce poco fa’, for example – seem a totally new experience.’
It’s not just DiDonato’s stylistic versatility that defines her success on stage – it’s her remarkable gifts as a singing actress. She really can play anything, from suffering queens to libidinous young men, from the title-role in Handel’s Ariodante to Sister Helen Prejean in Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking. No matter whom she is portraying in opera, no matter which song she is savouring in recital, she invests 100 per cent of herself in it. In complete control vocally, she is at the same time so consumed by the character that you forget it’s Joyce DiDonato you’re hearing up on stage. She embodies whomever she’s playing and whatever emotional situation she is evoking.
I caught up with the 41-year-old singer recently on a chill winter’s afternoon backstage at Lyric Opera of Chicago, where she was reprising – perhaps for the last time in her career, she confided – her endearing portrayal of the hormonal page Cherubino in Sir Peter Hall’s famed production of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro. For this revival the Lyric had assembled a dream cast that included Anne Schwanewilms and Mariusz Kwiecien as the Count and Countess Almaviva, Danielle de Niese as Susanna and Kyle Ketelsen as Figaro: such are the A-list circles in which DiDonato travels these days. It’s a privilege she richly deserves and has amply earned – the old-fashioned way, through good, solid, honest work.
Dressed in a V-necked grey sweater, blue jeans with rolled cuffs, and high boots, her blonde hair pulled back, DiDonato is relaxed and cheery during our interview in a conference room in the Lyric’s administrative suite. Her husband, Italian conductor Leonardo Vordoni, who is sharing podium duty in Figaro with Lyric music director Sir Andrew Davis, offers to fetch us refreshments. After several minutes he returns bearing sandwiches and bottles of diet cola. ‘You’ll get your tip later,’ DiDonato tells him, her blue eyes twinkling. The Trieste-born maestro and his wife – they exchanged marriage vows in a gondola at Las Vegas’s Venetian Hotel in 2006 – blow kisses to each other before he leaves us to our conversation.
The mezzo-soprano makes clear immediately that she doesn’t draw great musical or stylistic distinctions in the bel canto repertoire. ‘When you listen to the Willow scene, ‘Giusto ciel’ from Rossini’s Otello [written in 1816], there is much the same plangent, heartbreaking cantabile that you find 15 years later in Bellini’s music for Adalgisa in Norma,’ DiDonato observes. ‘For me, the basis for singing both Rossini and Bellini – and Handel, too, for that matter – is having a good legato, good language and then expressing the emotion in the music. I think you have a bit more freedom in Bellini with respect to the rubati and things like that. But for me the foundation is essentially the same.’
DiDonato’s Rosina in Chicago in 2008 reminded me why she’s considered the gold standard among today’s Rossini singers. Spunky, funny and lustrous-voiced, she sailed through the elaborate fioritura of ‘Una voce poco fa’ with agility, accuracy, rhythmic point and a mile-wide charm that didn’t have to beg for adoration. You had the sense of a caring artist giving herself to the moment, totally engaged with what she was singing. At no point did she seem to be watching herself perform; at no point did the pleasure she took in engaging the audience descend to prima-donna narcissism.
The singer admits it took her a while to lose the self-awareness and, what’s more, to learn when to hold back. ‘I got great advice once from the stage director Leonard Foglia when I was singing Sister Helen in Dead Man Walking,’ she recalls. ‘There is a very emotional scene in which I was crying and singing my heart out and acting up a storm. Lenny pulled me aside and said, very discreetly, ‘Joyce, I get everything you are doing. But when I’m sitting out in the audience, I want to decide what your character is feeling – I don’t want you to show me everything.’ It was great advice. If you give everything, there is nothing left for the audience. I’m not being paid to please myself. I don’t think it’s very responsible to go out there and ask people to love me. I see those kinds of performers in the business – not very many any more, thankfully. And I regard them – forgive the crude word – as parasites.’
Perhaps it was because of DiDonato’s modest, lower-middle-class upbringing as what she calls a ‘Catholic Midwest’ small-town girl, and the fact that she had to rise to the top of her profession almost by stealth, that she retains her equanimity and perspective, onstage and off. The sixth of seven siblings, DiDonato (née Joyce Flaherty, she has kept her surname from her previous marriage to Alex DiDonato) grew up in the Kansas City suburb of Prairie Village, where her father was a church choir director and her mother an organist. She showed a talent for singing at an early age. Her father tried to turn her on to opera by exposing her to the Saturday afternoon Metropolitan Opera broadcasts but young Joyce was drawn more to choral singing and, once she entered her teens, set her sights on becoming a teacher of choral music. She took vocal classes at Wichita State University, still unsure about pursuing a big solo career, which, she says today, ‘just sounded too grand for this Midwestern girl’. Three years at Philadelphia’s Academy of Vocal Arts left her feeling unappreciated but taught her that if she really wanted a career she was going to have to develop a thicker skin. On her first day as an apprentice at the Houston Opera Studio her teacher, Steve Smith, told her she must throw out everything that had got her that far. He took her back to the basics and for the next three years she went through the painful process of rebuilding her technique from scratch. ‘It was the greatest gift that could have been given to me,’ DiDonato reflects. ‘It was not always pretty but finally I learnt to start trusting the voice in performance. The last thing singers need when they get up onstage is to worry about the sound that’s going to come out.’
Despite her refurbished technique, following her departure from Houston the singer couldn’t seem to catch a break. She auditioned for seven New York artist managers and not one offered to engage her. The one who did take notice was London-based Simon Goldstone of IMG artists (who remains her manager to this day). Floored by her spellbinding performance at Plácido Domingo’s Operalia vocal competition in 1998, he arranged a string of European auditions for the still-unknown young American. Again, no luck: DiDonato struck out with 12. Finally, on her 13th try, the Paris Opéra engaged her for a new Barbiere in 2002. ‘It kind of blew my mind,’ she says. ‘Then immediately the other houses began calling and asking, ‘Who is this new Rosina?’’ Further debuts ensued at La Scala in Milan, the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, the Royal Opera in London, San Francisco, the Metropolitan in New York, and the Lyric in Chicago. At long last, DiDonato had arrived.
The moral? ‘Slow and steady won the race,’ the singer observes today. ‘I was fortunate that when that first domino fell in Paris, I broke in at a good level. Before that it was a real struggle. Not many people believed in me. Certainly not many were predicting that I would be at the stage I am today.’ Including Graham Johnson? I ask. ‘You know, he was right,’ DiDonato replies. ‘Maybe I didn’t have anything to say as an artist back then. As devastating as his comment was, what it did was make me go inside myself and realise the work wasn’t done yet.’
I ask her if she listens to her recordings. ‘I once put that question to the great soprano Leontyne Price. She said, ‘Oh, darling, sometimes I pop open a bottle of champagne and listen to my records all afternoon!’ Her point was, if you don’t love your voice, how can you expect other people to? That was a bit of a shock to me. I’m from the American Midwest, where a lot of self-deprecation goes a long way! But it taught me a lesson, that if I don’t believe I have something to say, then it’s a bit presumptuous of me to put it on disc for all eternity.’ She pauses. ‘I do listen to my recordings, but primarily to learn things from them.’
As a matter of fact, DiDonato spent the better part of a cold January week in the snow-covered northern Italian town of Lonigo, where she recorded the title-role in Ariodante with the period band Il Complesso Barocco under her friend and colleague, conductor Alan Curtis. ‘Alan and I have worked together so much that there is a lot of unspoken understanding between us,’ she says. ‘We inspire each other. Even if I try something he doesn’t agree with he’s willing to give me a lot of leeway because he knows that usually we are going to wind up on the same page. It’s very exciting to work that way.’ The Virgin Classics recording, in which DiDonato co-stars with Karina Gauvin, Marie-Nicole Lemieux and Topi Lehtipuu, is due out in spring 2011.
The singer is also due to take part in a new EMI recording of Rossini’s Stabat mater that’s set to go before the microphones with Pappano at the helm later this year in Rome. And she’s particularly excited about recording her third solo disc, for Virgin. All she will reveal is that it will be ‘a concept album that will highlight the joy of being a mezzo-soprano. I don’t want to give too much away because I don’t want anybody to steal the idea!’
Does DiDonato have a long-range repertoire plan? ‘I joke about that with my manager. I say, ‘When the voice is gone, these are the roles I want to do!’’’ she says, with a laugh. ‘I never want to get far away from the bel canto repertoire. In the next three to four years I’m looking forward to revisiting some of the roles I love but only have sung once – Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier, the Composer in Ariadne auf Naxos, Sesto in La clemenza di Tito, Prince Charming in Cendrillon, Roméo in I Capuleti e i Montecchi. That will mean fewer new roles on my immediate horizon.’ Her one exception will be taking on, for the first time, the vocally strenuous role of the eponymous Scottish queen in Maria Stuarda, a portrayal she is scheduled to unveil in Houston in 2012 before bringing it to the Met. Given that she burnt up the stage in Geneva in 2005 as Queen Elizabeth I in the same Donizetti opera, her legions of fans doubtless are already marking their calendars.
The singer has something else going for her: she’s an excellent photographer whose work adorns both her website and blog. Her blog entries are full of choice backstage stories and candid reflections on the joys and sorrows of travelling in opera’s fast track. For example, just hours after getting out of an emergency room in London following her fibula fracture in the Covent Garden Barbiere, she was posting photos and making ‘break a leg’ jokes in her web journal. DiDonato doesn’t shy away from writing candidly about herself, as witness this blog entry from 2008:
‘The onus is on me to believe in what I am bringing forth, to work to give the people their money’s worth – hopefully moving them in the process…I’ve worked hard on shedding some of these psycho-babbly (that’s the official term) head games that are so easy to engage in as a singer, clearing out the muck, and just letting the music revel in the attention it deserves.’ Spoken like a true un-diva.
‘I don’t think there are any limits to what Joyce can accomplish as an artist,’ Pines observes. ‘She’ll surely continue to go from strength to strength in her performances, and I expect that her choices of new repertoire will continue to be ideal for her particular instrument. She has a musical integrity and a technical confidence that can see her through every new challenge.’