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A gratitude posting for Thanksgiving

“Che l’immensa mia contento” warbles Elena at the end of a long night of bel canto emotional turbulence and vocal feasting as she begs the silenzio to speak for her, hoping its unpolluted simplicity will transport more profound emotion than any feeble words she might possibly voice on her own.  (Of course, “silence” in opera redefines the term “oxymoron”, but we’ll forgive her that ~ she’s been waiting 3 hours for that final aria!) Aptly enough, in the silence of my final walk home after the last of my 14 shows (comprised of two very different roles) at La Scala, I understood a bit more clearly the depth and power of stillness to mysteriously convey those overwhelming emotions that coursed through me ~ emotions of exhaustion, triumph, relief, joy, melancholy, satisfaction, dissatisfaction, connection and absolute, pure gratitude.

I also found myself winding back to the beginning of my sojourn in Milan, disguised as a young, ardent 17 year-old boy trying to understand the concept of not being able to hold onto anything, most notably, unable to contain or hold on to the elusive figure of time.  (When things are perfect, why can’t we KEEP them just as they are?)  Driving in from the airport the first of September I had little idea of what Milan might have in store for me, but I knew 3 months would be a very long haul; and yet on the drive back to that same airport I found myself stupefied at how quickly the time had flown, and how many diverse emotions (tanti affetti, indeed), experiences and connections I had made in such a long/short period of time.  It was rich beyond measure and a time I shall always treasure.

Light and Dark in the Milan Duomo

While the 2 worlds of Octavian & Elena/Strauss & Rossini, could not be more varied, (with the quick jump from one to the other mildly terrifying me), I did a lot of mental work to prepare myself for the challenge.  Because Octavian is such an intensive and unremitting, relentless role, I knew that any chance to work the role of  Elena back into the voice simultaneously was simply not possible.  Instead, I had to be sure to keep Octavian lean and as vocally close to the bel canto world as possible.  Vocalizing before the start of Rosenkavalier I included my normal exercises, adding in 3 or 4 of Elena’s killer phrases.  Intermissions would find me simply checking in on a trill or two, being sure that the voice was staying flexible and would continue to respond to my commands.  On my “off days”, I would simply vocally mark through the score lightly, being sure of the intonation and phrasing, but never giving full voice.  It was the only strategy I could think of to yield the result I needed.

This was a first for me, having to prepare a role this way, but it taught me a world of valuable lessons, first and foremost that the mental work we do in preparation for the stage and for singing is, bar none, the most important, beneficial and worthwhile work we can do as singers.  It enabled me to sing Octavian one night, and the next afternoon sing through the role of Elena on the stage of La Scala with orchestra without vocal fatigue setting in.  Crazy? Definitely.  But instructive? No doubt!

Curtain call as Octavian at Teatro alla Scala

During the run of Rosenkavalier, I witnessed numerous feats that humbled me and made me ever more grateful that I am a participant in this astonishingly beautiful and endlessly fascinating world of opera which never ceases to teach me far-reaching lessons: colleagues battling heart-wrenching personal challenges with immense professionalism and grace; other colleagues finding new-born confidence and revitalized passion for themselves, their lives, and for their music, a conductor methodically, passionately, and brilliantly winning over a tough orchestra with foreign, decidedly NON-Italian music, all the while inspiring his cast to new heights each and every night (under his astute and fervent guidance, the trio was a divine and fresh journey every single night that always left me seeing life in a slightly different light); a director passionately committed to finding the truth on the stage while fighting numerous “only in Italy” obstacles to allow us to do our job; and finally, a company of beautiful friends that connected deeply, lifted-up when needed, supported unfailingly and played together beautifully, all allowing for freer, more inspired performances.

It’s also the first time I felt I had truly “gotten” Octavian, because for me, at least, those Strauss roles need to be slow-cooked and simmered for a long time before they are as seasoned as you would like them to be.  And being a part of such a tremendously beautiful company made this a most memorable run for me.

Hopeful staircase in the Duomo

Sadly, it was also a very SICK company towards the end.  Our Baron Ochs was fighting an infection the entire run, our Sophie was battling severe allergies, our Maestro wavered between health and illness for weeks, we lost our Marschallin for the final performance, and on the morning of the final show I woke up with no voice.  Yep. None at all.  Now, this truly is the singer’s worst nightmare as you wake up and IMMEDIATELY know something is not right, but you’re not sure exactly what evil bug is at play. So with clenched fists and a beating heart you try out the first vocal “sigh” ~ and NOTHING arrives.  Not a peep.  I’m not talking about a morning voice that sits a bit low or groggy or froggy. I mean, not one decibel of sound is emitted because your vocal cords are incapable of coming together to vibrate.  Heed my warning: you do not want to be around a singer when this discovery is made.

By the time I arrived at the theater a few hours before the 8:00 curtain, thankfully about an octave of my voice had decided to show up, but nothing above an upper “D” ~ so to say that I was worried is a rather vast understatement.  No cover was on hand, and we had already lost a Marschallin, so canceling wasn’t really an option.  My game plan was to slowly and gingerly coax the voice into submission, while consuming obscene amounts of hot tea with all the prescribed accoutrements. I also knew that Octavian is a role that one *could* sort of barrel through if necessary, in the fact that so much of his singing is declamatory and not always exactly subtle (with those few glorious exceptions that pop out of nowhere excluded). I also knew I had a superlative conductor in the pit that would have my back, and I felt mentally that I could weather the storm.  And so I did … but I did feel as if the final note of the opera was the last one that I had in me at the end of the 4+ hours.  This meant the only possibility going forward was abundant, unrelenting rest.

I missed a full day of orchestra staging for La Donna del Lago as well as the final dress rehearsal ~ the first time in my career I have cancelled a stage rehearsal, believe it or not.  It was definitely a strange sensation for me, but I knew the only hope to get healthy enough to sing in the premiere (a mere 6 days after that final Rosenkavalier) was to shut up, lie down, and disappear from the world.  And so I did.  And recovery came … barely … but it thankfully came!

Elena, backstage

Singing Elena while operating at less than 100% vocal capacity is an entirely different beast from tip-toeing through Octavian, who can withstand the odd bruising here and there.  Elena is a role that requires every last bit of one’s vocal and artistic resources, including reserves of delicacy, finesse and grace ~ elements that are not always at one’s command while at the end of a bad throat infection.  (Oh ~ and did I mention that this was also going out live over the radio? No pressure there!)  In this vocal world of Rossini there is absolutely no place to hide.

Having had very limited rehearsal, recovering from a doozy of an infection, and standing in front of the Milanese Public no longer singing “foreign music”, but their very own BEL CANTO, I was tremendously nervous.  But I was also immensely honored to be there and knew that being a part of such a distinguished group of Rossini singers, it had the potential to be a most memorable night.  So I simply took a leap of faith and went for it.  And I’m glad I did.

Not everything worked as perfectly as I wanted it to, but this is the very reason we singers work so hard on our techniques – so that it can sustain us in times of crisis and trouble. But I’ll tell you, a strong will helps immeasurably, because I didn’t want anything to stand in the way of singing for the expectant public that night, nor for having the chance to dedicate the performance to my Father, who passed away on that day, 5 years prior.  Singing “Fra il padre…” that evening held such special meaning for me, that I selfishly didn’t want to miss the chance to connect with my memories of him in a very meaningful way.

An emotional ending to an intensive week

As I came out for my curtain call, astounded by the ovation and the warmth of the public, the emotion overwhelmed me deeply and I felt as if I was clearly stamping that moment in time in my heart thinking, “Don’t ever forget this feeling, Joyce”.  (I had a similar sensation 10 years earlier debuting on that very same stage as I got the end of “Non piu mesa” and couldn’t believe what had just happened, making the mental note “Always remember this, Joyce”.)  But a decade later, while the sensation was pregnant with very different meaning, and I am surely a very different person and artist from those earlier days, I still allowed myself the enjoyment of drinking in that moment fully.

See? When I say the stage and opera teach me, I really mean it:  I cannot forever REMAIN on stage bathing in the applause, or continue holding a high note or trill trying to keep that moment in time forever, and I can certainly never REPLICATE exactly an emotion or musical phrase, because I am no machine ~ I can only do the living of the moment, and let what happens happen.

But what I love to do is take note of the moment and smile, feel it, drink it in, and live it fully, knowing that it cannot be kept.  If I can truly do that, the satisfaction that comes is pure, so I feel safe to move on to the next moment. And then the next. Just as the Marschallin tries to instruct Octavian to do, for we really cannot HOLD a moment in time.  We can NEVER recreate the very same trill that “worked” from one night to the next.  We have to simply do the work it takes to succeed again with renewed conviction and relish the tumultuous, unpredictable, always surprising act of living that follows.

"...tanta felicità..."

I wish each and every one of you the most wonderful Thanksgiving, full of numerous things that scream for your gratitude!

17 Comments

  1. Kevin said…

    Thank you so much, Joyce. I don’t think you really know how inspiring you are to so many aspiring students like me. Such well-written posts inspire me to become a singer, even though you talk so truthfully about how difficult it can be…

  2. Silvia Romagnoli said…

    I knew it!!!!!
    The incredible emotion you give when you sing , when you are on stage, when you are acting is absolutly true. When some one is so popolar and succesfull it became a little more difficult to understand if you keep acting or not in real life.
    Of course I don’ t know any thing of your real life, but the more I read and find out about you, the more I think you are a very good person that deserve all the success of this world. And I think this is more and more important than being the best singer of the world. Thank you for sharing” you” with us, a fantastic Thanksgiving to you too and to all your family.

  3. Clint Riley said…

    This year I am thankful for many things, including this lovely recap of your time in Milan and that I had the opportunity to experience your performances in both of these productions. Thank you for your lovely spirit and generosity.

  4. anna bellini said…

    grazie grazie della grande emozione di averla vista e sentita l’altra sera alla scala. Sono la signora che ha offerto la piadina. Stia bene evviva anna

  5. Dear Ms. Donato,

    Thank you for sharing your experiences with us the singing and listening public. I appreciated your article so much because you shared your heart and the realities of a singer’s challenges. You have encouraged me. I wish you a blessed Thanksgiving!

  6. Jakob said…

    Dear Joyce, we are all incredibly happy that an artist like you lives and enhances the world with sublime art. Thank you for that, and your emotional post. A happy Thanksgiving to you as well and please keep on your great work!
    All the best, Jakob

  7. Tom Makeig said…

    As I drove with my wife and soprano daughter to KC on Nov. 18 to hear Alek Shrader’s concert sponsored by Harriman-Jewell, I thought of your birthday concert last February, of your love for your home town and your current triumph at La Scala. A sage once said, “The world is my family.” Your art, your blog and your kindness really knit us all together. The world always seems to be falling apart, but some among us are glue. Thank you and Happy Thanksgiving.

  8. Dr. Ruth S. said…

    I had the privilege of seeing and hearing you in both roles at La Scala. It was an extraordinary experience to be a member of the audience. You are able to communicate such joy from the stage, it’s a pleasure to hear you speak of the thrill of performing. Know that your art and your enthusiasm come through, loud and clear. And you are always a collaborative artist. What a gift. It’s never the “Joyce DiDonato Show.” It’s always the work you are performing, giving it your all, and truly working with your fellow performers. I have many things for which to be grateful, not the least of which is having my life enriched by your fabulous performances. Thanksgiving is certainly not just a day to overeat (which is neither enticing nor even possible after my cancer surgery,) but a day to give thanks. Know that your hard work, artistry and commitment (even with a throat infection) are deeply appreciated by those of us who are blessed to receive your gifts. Thank you.

  9. Cristina G.N said…

    Para Joyce Didonato

    Aunque en mi país(España)no celebramos el día de acción de grácias quiero desearla tenga una feliz jornada con unos versos de mi própia cosecha los cuales la envio de corazón.

    Gracias viento que traes
    la melódia de la vida
    el amor,el sentimiento..
    Una dicha encendida
    de recuerdos albergados
    y escondidos en el corazón
    tus ojos serán mi religión
    mi paz la música que con tu voz
    grabas en mi alma
    cada vez que escucho
    lo que tus palabras enseñan
    un tesoro de nobleza
    simpatía y serenidad
    cubiertos por un manto
    inmenso de bondad…

    Cristina G.N

  10. Cristina G.N said…

    Para Joyce Didonato

    Hace unos instantes la envié una poesía en agradecimiento por sus agradables y bondadosas palabras en el día de acción de gracias lo cual demuestra por su parte una grandeza de corazón y nos enseña que además de ser una grandísima artista és una gran persona a la cual aquí en Madrid apreciamos…
    Ruego disculpe si puede tener algunas palabras equivocadas o faltas de ortografía pero pulse el boton send muy rapidamente y no me dió tiempo a subsanar los errores.

    Best wishes for you.

    Cristina G.N

  11. Pam Frame said…

    Thank you, Joyce, for sharing these insights and actions of these last three months. To put these experiences into such wonderful prose is a gift to all who follow you. Happy Thanksgiving!

  12. Marguerite Foxon said…

    Thanks Joyce for being so open to share what life is really like. It gives me, a passionate opera fan, a great insight into what lies behind the world we see on stage, and how the singers prepare and what they go through. Im a huge fan of yours and feel through these and other postings of yours that Ive really got to know you at a personal level. Thanks for that. Its really appreciated. M

  13. Emi said…

    Your post helps me understand why Der Rosenkavalier resonates so deeply with me, and why I experience it as so much more than a light comedy. Thank you!

  14. A Ames said…

    A statement from the Marschallin, Marie Therese –“Die Zeit, die ist ein sonderbar Ding” — encapsulates the lesson you described so movingly here, Joyce. Thanks for the story!
    @@

  15. Mirella Cavalcante said…

    Dear Miss Joyce DiDonato,
    I am very happy that everything ended well for you. I am a singer, believe me, I know deeply how you feel, especially when you face such a responsability. I hope someday I have the chance to hear you in person. Who knows? I am living in America now! :-)

  16. Dear Joyce DiDonato,

    Thank you so much for continuing to post entries to your blog. You give all of us young and aspiing singers out there the hope and inspiration that we need. As you know and so honestly express, this is a difficult path to choose. Knowing that singing is something that I absolutely have to do, but the uncertainty that comes with it, and the constant battle against the anxiety that wants to creep it’s way in can feel overwhelming. But when I begin to feel that way, I go right to your blog.

    Thank you.

    Joyce, you truly are my greatest inspiration in the opera world today, and I hope that one day I will perform the roles that you have triumphed and experience for myself some of the beautiful and heartfelt sentiments that you have written about in this blog.

    I hope you had a wonderful holiday.

    Peace,

    Caroline O’Dwyer
    mezzo-soprano
    Eastman School of Music,
    Candidate for MM – 2013

  17. Maude Larke said…

    Brava, brava for the fortitude to come through on that last, scary Rosenkavalier! Proud of you! And when, oh WHEN am I going to get to see that Elena???? I’ll have to plot something.

    Always such a lift to read your blogs, hear your vlogs, GET your communication! Keep it up!

    Hope Thanksgiving AND Xmas AND the New Year have been/are being/will be good to you. I’ll hear you in February in London! Yay!

    Maude

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We need you to remind us what empathy is by taking us deep into the hearts of those who are, God forbid, different than us – so that we can recapture the hope of not only living in peace with each other, but THRIVING together in a vibrant way where each of us grows in wonder and joy.

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