Joyce DiDonato – harmony through music

James Jolly
Friday, September 1, 2017

James Jolly attended the recording sessions of Joyce DiDonato's 2017 Gramophone Award-winning album 'In War and Peace'...

Joyce DiDonato (photo: Brooke Shaden / Warner Classics)
Joyce DiDonato (photo: Brooke Shaden / Warner Classics)

The northern Italian town of Dobbiaco is best known to music lovers under its Austrian name, Toblach. It was here in the South Tyrol, for three summers between 1908 and 1910, that Gustav Mahler came to write his Ninth Symphony and Das Lied von der Erde, and to start his Tenth Symphony. It’s hard to imagine how anyone could write such death-obsessed music in a setting as beautiful as this. In the summer the countryside positively seethes with life (just think of the opening of Mahler’s First Symphony made real) and in winter, under a thick blanket of spotless snow, there is a purity and beauty that is quite breathtaking. These days, musicians don’t come to Dobbiaco to write music; they come to record it.

For a week in March, Joyce DiDonato and Il Pomo d’Oro, under its dynamic and youthful Chief Conductor Maxim Emelyanychev, took up residence in the town to record an album of Baroque arias. The venue was a concert hall – dedicated to the memory of the town’s most famous musical visitor – attached to the Grand Hotel Dobbiaco, once an imposing hotel and now a very grand youth hostel; the hall, wood panelled, possesses a warm yet beautifully analytical acoustic that makes it perfect for recording. And, needless to say, Dobbiaco in March is extremely quiet.

DiDonato, very much the mezzo of the moment, has reached a point in her career when she can call the shots. Operas are being written for her, film directors are encouraging her to diversify into movies, and recording projects are able to become, à la Cecilia Bartoli, ever more a reflection of her position in this world, both as an artist and as a person. She’s a singer with a strong social conscience, too. ‘I was on track to record unknown compositions from early Naples composers, pre- bel canto,’ she recalls of her newest project. ‘It was interesting but it felt a little bit like an academic exercise. Then the Paris attacks happened. So I was sitting there looking at the music – something like 60 arias that had been found – but I couldn’t shake the feeling that people were going to listen to the disc just once; they’d say, “OK”, but feel no need to return to it. And I thought: I want this album to be the one that people need to replay over and over – I have to say something with this disc.’

Il Pomo d’Oro had long been engaged as her recording partners, but still DiDonato was worried about the concept, mindful too that there were things she was dying to tackle – pieces, such as ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’, which she feels she’s ‘earned the right to do. People go, “everybody’s recorded that”,’ DiDonato says, ‘but I wanted the chance to sing it and to tour with it. So all of these things were swirling around in my head.’

She continued to leaf through her list of arias and then there was a Damascus moment. ‘It just hit me. It was right in front of me: Sesto’s arias. The only things these are talking about are war and peace and – ding! – it just hit. And I thought: that’s it, it’s going to be “In War and Peace”. Then the repertoire just’ – she searches for a suitably strong word – ‘vomited out in front of me. I could make four discs…five discs, I thought; I could even just record highlights from Giulio Cesare singing the four different characters.

‘But I then also realized that there was something bigger here. Artists, playwrights, composers – we’ve been talking about this for centuries, since the beginning of our time, in fact. I decided I wanted to put out the message that we have a choice; to say, “here’s what war looks like; here’s what peace looks like; here are all the murky waters in between – and we have a choice.” I don’t need to represent reality in this project. We have reality all around us. I want to show the ideal. So that’s why I put “Harmony through Music” in the title, because I think it’s becoming more true each day. The only things that make sense, the only sane place right now for many people, are the arts and music. It’s the one place where we can still be united.’

It’s 11 o’clock in Dobbiaco, just over halfway through the week’s sessions – it’s also St Patrick’s Day. Il Pomo d’Oro have been warming up for an hour, trying out various approaches and balances for the aria on the menu for the day, Cleopatra’s ‘Da tempeste’ from Handel’s Giulio Cesare, destined for the ‘Peace’ half of the programme. DiDonato arrives bang on time, showing signs of the pretty punishing schedule (she’d sung three sessions the previous day), yet full of enthusiasm. I joke that I’d scoured London the day before for shamrocks to bring the diva, née Joyce Flaherty. She laughs and tells me she’d also been looking for something green. Instead she is stylishly dressed all in black, with that kind of effortlessly casual elegance that comes with immense practice.

She joins the orchestra in the hall and immediately wins their hearts. ‘Finally we have no violas,’ she jokes to the ensemble. ‘It’s like when we do Figaro and have no tenors!’ There’s laughter, and she launches into an explanation of the aria. ‘This is Egyptian girl power. Cleopatra is the original feminist. She ruled a huge kingdom. She’s exotic, but sexy in a feminist way. This woman gives life. There’s empowerment – keep up boys! – yet it’s a real moment of celebration. Oh,’ she adds, ‘and if you want to take it down a half step, that’s fine with me!’

The dynamic between singer and players is easy, casual and clearly fuelled by mutual respect and fondness. DiDonato is also disarmingly honest. When she messes up, she apologises; and when they need a few different takes, she issues a very genuine ‘Thanks for your patience, guys!’ It’s also one of those recording sessions where the entire orchestra piles into the control room to listen to playbacks. Each member is comfortable about chipping in, and it really does feel like a case of DiDonato being first among equals. ‘I think I need to be more improvisatory, more celebratory,’ she comments at the first playback. ‘The orchestra needs to be more grounded in the tempo,’ is her longtime producer Daniel Zalay’s comment, while Emelyanychev suggests a more ‘frisky and jumpy’ approach from the singer. And he proposes that she try a single breath for the final coloratura passage. ‘Do you want to show me how to do that?’ she comes back at him fast, to general laughter. Later I comment about the orchestra’s extreme youth, and DiDonato delights in telling me of an occasion when they were touring in the States and couldn’t get into a bar because one of them wasn’t 21.

The relationship between Il Pomo d’Oro and DiDonato is one that works not just on a musical level, but on a personal one too. ‘They’re phenomenal,’ she tells me. ‘It’s like family, they’re friends, they’re eager, they’re not stuck in their ways.’ Though a relative newcomer to the musical scene, the ensemble can trace its roots back to Il Complesso Barocco, the late Alan Curtis’s group, with which DiDonato made her first recordings. ‘We’ve kind of grown up together artistically and in the world. I think they like feeling empowered and that they are a part of it – that they’re necessary in terms of the character and setting the landscape and the drama. They’re so willing – and that’s unusual for an orchestra in general, I have to say. You feel and hear it in the music that they’re actually engaged, that they’re invested in the music-making, which is particularly important with an ensemble of that size.

‘Every player may as well be a soloist, as each of them has a really distinct voice. This kind of music, especially this project, is so personal and so deeply human. Every aria is a big journey, and if it’s not really clear – the story that we’re telling and the journey of that character – with everybody on that stage, it’s intolerable for me. But they’re such willing partners, and play so beautifully and with such energy. I love it. I feel so fortunate to be with them.’

Il Pomo d’Oro – who take their name from an enormously extravagant 10-hour opera, from 1666, by Antonio Cesti – travel pretty light (even their Artistic Director Giulio d’Alessio plays the violin in the ensemble), but they do have some interesting camp-followers. One of them is the Veneto-based American crime writer Donna Leon, who refers to herself as the ensemble’s ‘mascot’. And she and DiDonato go back a long way, too. ‘She was recording duets with Patrizia Ciofi, Il Complesso and Alan Curtis,’ the writer recalls of the first encounter, some 15 years ago, ‘and I remember thinking: “Wow, this kid can sing”. I immediately liked her because she was a real person. There was no glam – fake or real or attempted. She is a serious singer. And we’d often end up after recording sessions at one end of the dinner table with Alan because we were the English speakers and everyone else was speaking other languages. My admiration for her grew as her musicality blossomed and she got better and better with each passing year.’

And has she changed in those 15 years? ‘Not at all. There’s a confidence, but the centre – a middle-class American young woman who comes from a very united family and who was raised good – has not changed at all. She was absolutely unpretentious, un-diva-like. But now she is a diva, there’s really no difference.’

The writer is also struck by the relationship between DiDonato and Il Pomo d’Oro, a mutual respect that I witnessed during the sessions. ‘There’s a kind of a basic equality among these musicians that I notice and like. Often a player will do something and Joyce will say, “Yes! That’s great”. People aren’t intimidated to say “Could we try such and such?”. There’s a lot of back and forth and it’s lovely to see.’

Jump forward three months, and DiDonato and I are in London. She’s in town singing her first staged Werther at Covent Garden (‘I don’t get that kind of orchestral texture very often in the repertoire that I do – it’s like bathing in it’). We take the opportunity to reflect further on ‘In War and Peace’ – on the project itself but also on how it fits into the context of our increasingly dysfunctional world (just a few days earlier the UK had voted to leave the EU).

DiDonato has strong views and, buoyed up by the support she receives from her fans, feels empowered to express them. ‘I think the timing is right to dare to actually challenge people and make a big statement like this. It could very well backfire. I could go too far, so I keep coming back to the idea of the music and that I’m not preaching – I’m just presenting, I’m showing an option. This is what I’m thinking.’ DiDonato is no stranger to the power of social media, but explains that her online presence was ‘completely improvised’. She was reluctant at first: ‘It started very innocently when a friend told me I should start a website. I said I didn’t want one. “Oh, but you have to have one, people are Googling you.” “OK, but I don’t want it to be just ‘me, me, me’. I want to say something with it.” And that evolved into blogs, and that evolved into videos, and that evolved into tweeting. But the whole purpose to me is that I want to connect. It’s not just about selling CDs or getting more followers or anything like that. But when I say I’m dedicating a show to a kid who was killed in Santa Fe or committed suicide because he was gay, and I tweet about it, then all of a sudden I see the impact that has on people and how it really touches them, really impacts their lives.’

Sing Sing is a maximum security prison about 30 miles north of New York City on the east bank of the Hudson river. It is home to about 2000 prisoners, ranging in age from 18 to 80, and predominantly African-American and Latino. It is not the sort of place you’d expect to find a singer more comfortable on the stage of the Met or Covent Garden – Fidelio or Andrea Chénier are the closest most opera singers get to a prison. But late last year it provided DiDonato with what she describes as ‘the most extraordinary experience I’ve ever had in my life’.

Carnegie Hall operates an outreach programme that takes musicians into Sing Sing where they work with the prisoners on composition and performance. DiDonato takes up the story. ‘I heard about it and I said I wanted to go. They asked the gentlemen there, “Does anyone want to write for an opera singer?” and three of them wrote pieces for me. I went one day to work on the music and to meet the men. A week later they gave a concert for the prison population – there were about 400 of them in this auditorium. I walked out on stage and I was scared; I could hear my heart beating and I had this very awkward second when I didn’t know what to say. My throat went dry. Then from the back of the auditorium this booming voice came out: “thank you for coming here!” And they all started applauding. It was the most heartfelt, warm welcome I will probably ever receive – and they were chanting my name, “di-do-na-to”. They couldn’t get enough, and at the end they all wanted me to sign their programmes for their girlfriends, for their daughters. They loved it, and they got it. So anybody who has the nerve to say to me that opera is out-dated or irrelevant, I’ll flip them the finger and say, “You don’t know what you’re talking about” because I’ve seen it!

‘We sang the pieces that they wrote, then they wanted me to sing opera. They’d never had an opera singer in there before, so I brought “Piangerò” and “Tanti affetti” and explained them. She recalls what she said: ‘In “Piangerò” it’s Cleopatra, and she’s very upset and in mourning. But in the middle section you’ll hear the music really changes as she starts to reclaim the sense of being a queen, and she says: “when I’m dead I’m going to come back as a ghost and I’m going to haunt you and I’ll have my revenge.” And then you’ll hear the music return and you hear the depth of her sadness.’

But something unexpected happened when she started singing that middle section. ‘They started screaming: “You go girl, you get him, you go, make him pay!” They were interacting – it was like what the Globe Theatre must have been like. And then total silence when I come back to the da capo…total silence. And then they leapt to their feet and screamed like I’ve never heard before in my life.’

So ‘In War and Peace’ isn’t just a recording for DiDonato; it’s a statement of belief at a particularly traumatic time in world history. There’s also a website that explores responses to the question, ‘In the midst of chaos, how do you find peace?’ DiDonato has canvassed answers from people from all walks of life. ‘I have US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg answering the question very eloquently and I have an inmate from Sing Sing answering it in a brutal, brutal, graphic way. Side by side. There is no tier, there is no hierarchy. Everybody has equal say, everybody has equal voice.’

The recording and the website will be followed by a 20-city tour, which starts in November and runs for 11 concerts and then starts up again next May for another nine – and DiDonato hopes for more after that. When she launched her album ‘Stella di Napoli’ she gave a concert in a welding factory in Brooklyn. ‘We live-streamed it,’ she recalls, ‘and the best thing was they had an open bar. There were beer bottles clanking on the cement floor and I wore sequined Vivienne Westwood. It was such a juxtaposition of worlds. It was a totally different audience, and I spoke to them. I introduced things casually and they loved it.’

The tour of ‘In War and Peace’ will, DiDonato explains, attempt to present the aria recital differently. ‘My hope is that maybe people will start to think of the classical concert genre in a slightly more open way and ask, “Can we play with this a little bit?”. Not play with the music – that’s the core of it, the spinal column – but ask whether we can frame it so that somebody who’s 25 is actually attracted to buy a ticket, comes in and is blown away. But also so that somebody who’s 80, and a subscriber, can say, “Wow, I didn’t know that the concert could go to this level”. I’m trying to find a way that offers a deeper experience for everybody.

‘That’s an issue that I see with classical concerts now. It’s not that the content is out of date or, for lack of a better word, “non-relevant” – that couldn’t be further from the truth. I just want to deepen the experience. We understand a visual language, to take an example, so if you take down the house lights and you give surtitles it helps you focus on the stage. I could be wrong, but I know that when I go to concerts and there’s that effort made I go to a deeper place, I’m carried away.’

This article originally appeared in the November 2016 issue of Gramophone. To find out more about subscribing to the world's leading classical music magazine, please visit:

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