Realizing Mary

From Mary’s last letter to her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I of England:

“Accuse me not of presumption if, leaving this world and preparing myself for a better, I remind you will one day to give account of your charge, in like manner as those who preceded you in it, and that my blood and the misery of my country will be remembered, wherefor from the earliest dawn of your comprehension we ought to dispose our minds to make things temporal yield to those of eternity.

Your sister and cousin wrongfully a prisoner,

Mary's signature)

Photo © Ken Howard

Photo © Ken Howard

It is difficult to express how much this run of Maria Stuarda at the Metropolitan Opera has impacted to me.  The opera itself suffered a complicated birth to be sure, having suffered numerous rewrites, cancellations, postponements, and a myriad of different kinds of performances along the way.  History occupies a backseat in the opera giving way to a contrived telling of rival queens, a fabricated love triangle, and a purified version of the title character.  (Donizetti knew his audience ~ a staunchly Roman Catholic public who expected a Maria who would embrace her martyrdom and reign over the Protestant rival.)  Yet here we are 177 years later, and each evening I step into my modest black frock and take a journey from hope to darkness, finally returning to light each evening, and a journey unfolds that surprises me with every single performance.

As Maria arrives nearly 40 minutes into the piece, she is the Mary of her youth – a very athletic, active young woman, relishing the chance to take in the open sky and fresh air for the first time in years since her captivity began (roughly 7 or 8 years in our production). She is still hopeful, still writes letters to Elizabeth pleading her case, and still in correspondance with Leicester who fills her with hope of her release.  Crowned as Queen of Scotland at only 6 days old, the opening scene finds Mary overcome with emotion in remembering her distant childhood homeland of France, carried away with memories of joy and freedom, truly overwhelmed by her senses.  Can you imagine having been confined in a damp, chilly castle, (OK – so she wasn’t in Angola, to be fair, but still … !), cut off from your loved ones for years, taking in very little sunlight, very little fresh air, and finally to be let outdoors?  … the sunlight? … the grass? … the trees? … the sheer SPACE? Ah, les souvenirs …

It is a tragically short lived moment of melancholy bliss for her, as Royal trumpets sound in the distance. It could be a death warrant, or it could be her freedom, but the anxiety overcomes her.  She learns that the Queen, herself, is on her way. Mary is in no way prepared for this unannounced visit, even though she has been pleading for it for years. She confesses her fear that she does not possess the courage or strength to face her.  Following Schiller’s stroke of playwriting genius, we are set up for the showdown of these two rival Queens. What strikes me as terribly tragic about this situation is that they are the only two humans on the face of the earth at that very moment who could possibly have understand the other, and if circumstances had been different, they likely could have been the best of friends.  Instead, for how things had played out (politically, religiously) their destiny was that of enemies in every arena.  Face to face, they are seeing each other in the flesh for the very first time ~ all they had imagined, all they had envisioned was now personified in living form before their own eyes: the intense curiosity … the utter fascination … the gripping fear … the understandable defense … the certain jealousy … Schiller and Donizetti knew it was ripe for explosive drama.


Photo © Ken Howard

I think Mary (having reluctantly agreed to supplicate herself to not only plead for her life, but to also broker some kind of peace in England) knows very quickly that there will be no pardon on this day.  She sees it in Elizabeth’s eyes from the very first moment, and yet, the English Court is present, so she wills herself to follow through with her promise.  This is no longer about herself, but she is now working purely as a raw political figure.  She takes the vitriolic insults and the power play by the Queen for as long as she can, until she can hold her tongue no longer, and we get some of Donizetti’s most surprising, inspired writing.  (It’s a fabulous thing that a modern audience can still audibly react to the vehement, indignant outburst of Mary!)

One of the reasons I think this matchup is so dramatically powerful, is because both women are not simply hurling petty insults in a glorified, operatic cat fight.  No. They are each speaking the truth as they know it and have lived it for years, casting a righteous air to hover over both of them.  Mary did seduce numerous men under suspicious circumstances, and her wedding bed was hardly pure.  Elizabeth was a bastard child of Anne Boleyn (a name that wasn’t even allowed to be uttered in that time – making it as equally shocking as screaming “vil bastarda”) and according to Mary’s Catholic faith, Elizabeth absolutely was soiling the throne of England.  They were both absolutely RIGHT.   There is nothing petty or artificial about this exchange – they are both, as dutiful and brilliant Queens, defending their country’s honor, their thrones, their womanhood, their dignity.

Photo © Ken Howard

Photo © Ken Howard

Does Mary seal her fate at that very point, at the end of the famous confrontation? No, because it still takes Elizabeth another 10 years to make the fateful pronouncement. This is not a knee-jerk reaction on Elizabeth’s part. As in history, she was tormented by the dire situation and knew there was no winning strategy available to her.  The death sentence is not merely because she has been insulted. (In the opera, the tenor contributes strongly to the drama, for Elizabeth’s jealousy is enlarged and becomes her handicap.)  But Mary’s outcome was probably set in motion the moment she was captured.

10 years have passed, and they have passed in agony slowly, excruciatingly, and solitarily.  The cold, damp chambers have taken a tremendous toll on Mary and we see her at the top of the 2nd part as dark, dreary, shaking and frail, for bitterness has settled acutely into her bones and defiant anger has become her friend. The euphoria she felt after unleashing her righteous fury on Elizabeth has long since faded away, and she is haunted by her past and her impending sentence.  When faced with death, it is the unknown that is unbearable ~ when will it happen? how much longer do I have? how will it happen?  Mary is broken. I think when the death sentence finally arrives, it must have come as a kind of relief ~ the waiting was finally at an end.  (I love how she responds to the news in the opera: “So THIS is how England delivers its final judgment on a Queen.”  It’s so deliciously defiant.)

As she is left to face her final hours, it is her salvation that is at stake, and she is faced with her final confession.  I know everyone talks about the confrontation scene, but for me, this is the central heart and soul of the opera.  We see Mary at her most fragile, most broken. She is lost, frightened, far from God, and that bitterness just will not leave her.  It is only through her trusted friend, Talbot’s insistence that she finally opens up and can pour forth her confession ~ which according to her faith will bring her eternal salvation.  This comfort is what finally brings release and in it Mary finds the strength to face her execution.

(It’s a fascinating juxtaposition for me to be on the other side of the prison cell. In Dead Man Walking I was the one trying so desperately to save the soul of Joseph Derocher, and the agony of that scene from the side of the confessor destroyed me every time.  This time I am playing the one in need of purging my soul, and the release of finally saying “Yes, I am guilty” washes over me in a flood in this production.  Every time it is different, and every time I am deeply moved.)

Photo © Ken Howard

Photo © Ken Howard

What can be said about the final 20 minutes of this opera? What astonishes me in every performance is how quickly it all goes by! It is like being shot out of a canon and there is no slowing down or adjusting along the way. It feels as if Donizetti enters a completely different zone from the chorus before the prayer onwards, and we seem to be thrust into a kind of through-composed drama that gathers speed more and more until the final canon shot is heard, and she scales the steps to her execution.

Photo © Ken Howard

Photo © Ken Howard

At this moment, all of Mary’s focus becomes on helping the people around her: the faithful staff who have stood by her, her people who have fought for her, the poor tenor who comes in one last time, wrought with guilt ~ she has made piece with her fate, yet she must help the others find their way to acceptance.  She becomes the comforter, and yet it is her hour of death.  (Again, this is such an Italian/Catholic way to present a martyr to the public!)

I’ve never enacted a scene quite like these final 20 minutes of Maria Stuarda before and it has been a tremendous challenge. It requires an astonishing amount of vocal, physical, and emotional stamina, and yet with every performance it plays out completely differently.  But what I DO feel as I walk her journey each time, is that she is ready for her death. She has finally found her peace.  She is certainly terrified (and considering how her execution played out, she absolutely had reason to be) and yet she manages to find a deep reservoir of determination and fortitude that enables her to climb to her death.

I am so happy to be sharing this journey with so many people across the world (courtesy of the Met’s incredible Live in HD commitment) and to have brought this character to life at the Metropolitan Opera for the first time in its history is an incredible privilege.  She is a role that has been inhabited by the best of the best ~ each star singer bringing a completely different set of strengths to her treacherous phrases and her powerful, dramatic journey, bringing a different temperament to a confounding historical figure. To have had the chance to put my stamp on her with such a supportive team will, I’m certain, always remain a career highlight for me.

Mary Queen of Scots has left an undeniable legacy to the legions of her beloved followers, yet she has also alienated many that have never bought into her elevated status and the sometimes distorted history. Donizetti certainly took liberties with her, as has every singer to sing her phrases.  My joy in this role is to highlight the emotional journey of longing, faith, fear, guilt, love, and eventual surrender in order to let the audience define Mary through their own eyes.


  1. Lucija said…

    Thank you for sharing this extraordinary journey with us! And for bringing out this important story of Maria Stuarda’s life and giving us a different view of it, the bigger one. I believe we could make so many parallels with what is going on in today’s world. And you, Joyce, really brang her to live.

    I am so excited for this live broadcast! This evening will be turned into one beautiful memory.

    Toi toi toi!
    from Croatia


  2. Emma said…

    Fantastic to read this, Ms DiDonato! Thank you for sharing this with us. It reminds me of this footage of Mary Queen of Scots with Vanessa Redgrave and Glenda Jackson. I’m keen to see you as Maria Stuarda after performing Lucia di Lammermoor. The operas are linked in some ways. I can’t wait to see your performance tonight in Germany. Wishing you another wonderful evening. Toi toi toi!

  3. Deb said…

    I must admit that I am fairly new to opera. I have been to a handful of productions,but they never grabbed me in the the way that theartre does. This afternoon, I became a complete convert. I don’t have words to do justice to what I experienced today, but I thank you from the bottom of my heart for sharing with us your honest and powerful performance.

  4. Susan Leffler said…

    To Joyce,

    I missed Voigt and Sills in their prime, BUT I have YOU!! to my utter joy!

    May good fortune and good health be with you always! Sue

  5. Stillness said…

    That was a life changing performance – words fail me.

  6. Shelley Weiner said…

    Great work at yesterday’s Live in HD performance. My husband says he still doesn’t “get” bel canto, but he thinks you rocked.

  7. Isabela said…

    Hey Joyce! Oh my world, what was yesterday? I really can’t find the words to explain, what I can say is THANK YOU, thank you for one of the most moving performances I’ve ever seen. I arrived at the nick of time in the movie theatre after quite a long and crazy journey to get there and I was completely taken from the very first notes played. My congratilations, you were so fantastic and wonderful! A quite silly thing I did was when you said “hello to the fans” I waved and let out a big “UHUL!”, people started but I don’t care! You’re awesome! Toi, toi, toi for the rest of your Maria Stuarda season! Loads and loads of love from Brasil!

  8. John C. Koershuis said…

    Thank you ever so much Joyce for giving me [and millions of others] this very beautiful performance.
    I have the feeling, I fell in love with your voice.
    I will attend at least one encore of Maria Stuarda, soon

  9. Ioana said…

    Indeed, “Words fail me” is the best way to describe last night’s experience. I was in a packed movie theater and people around me just couldn’t seem to be able to leave at the end. Everyone stayed glued to their seats through the curtain call, the emotion was floating in the air, almost palpable. I was reading an international opera forum today and people around the world wrote how they were absolutely overwhelmed by your performance. That’s the power of an extraordinary artist. It’s a privilege to be able to watch you and listen to you and I’m so, so, so happy that I’ll get the opportunity to do that live, in Paris, very soon. Thank you, Ms DiDonato!

    Ioana (Bucharest, Romania)

  10. John Kenneth Adams said…

    Hi Joyce, Yesterday was a great moment in music. The final scene was incredible, … one unbroken arch of beautiful singing. Looking forward to Covent Garden in May. John

  11. José D. Part said…

    GRACIAS! Thanks for your moving performance last Saturday. I can tell you that many people in the audience cried in the last act. Including me! I can’t wait to attend your performance at the Palau de la Música, Valencia (Spain). You are GREAT!

  12. lee lester said…

    You excelled yourself in Maria Stuarda. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

  13. mary nilan said…

    Your performance in this opera (HD Broadcast) was one of the most incredible I’ve ever seen/heard. As you are my favorite Mezzo, I considered flying to NY to see it in person but the fact that it is in the middle of winter sort of put me off (being from SF). your singing/acting was exquisite-I wept until I could no more-and then got chills when the scene between you and “Elizabeth” THE scene was so dramatic-never experienced a comparable one in any opera. Magnificent. I emailed Larissa to ask her if you had shorn your golden tresses (final scene) but she assured me you had not. Will be going to the encore performance Feb 6th. Sure hope that comes out on DVD. The entire cast was superb! Thank you for your art…

  14. Susan said…

    Thank you for your passion! I was privileged to see “Maria Stuarda” at last week’s Tuesday perfomance at “The Met” – a Christmas present to my daughter who is studying as a vocal perfomance major, hoping to sing ‘Bel Canto’ as a mezzo-soprano. She is your #1 fan!
    And I want to thank you for inviting Susannah and me back stage after the perfomance to meet you. You are so gracious! Your performance and interpretation was superb! A night I will forever treasure and remember for many reasons. May God bless you and keep you.

  15. Marjo said…

    Thank you, Ms DiDonato, for your performance in Maria Stuarda. I have seen Donizetti’s Anna Bolena several times and was looking forward to hearing – for the first time – another of his “Queenly” operas. I was overwhelmed and at the end I cried. It was so beautiful and you made Mary Stuart so true and believable (although of course the opera wasn’t historically correct in its details). Thank you! I hope that we who are far away from world’s big opera houses will get new chances to hear your voice through these wonderful “movie-opera” performances.


  16. Jennifer said…

    Dear Ms. DiDonato,

    I just saw the encore “Live in HD” performace of Maria Stuarda last night. It was my first time ever seeing an opera, and I went because Mary Stuart is my absolute favorite historical character.

    I just want you to know that you were INCREDIBLE! To me, you WERE Mary Stuart on that stage. I’d read lots of reviews of the show beforehand, and you earned every bit of praise received. My only regret is that I couldn’t be at the original showing on January 19th. I hope this is released on DVD so that I can make it part of my collection.

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for bringing Queen Mary to life on stage, and for this informative post. What you said about Mary and Elizabeth both being absolutely right is absolutely true. It’s obvious you studied the history behind this.

    Best wishes from Atlanta,


  17. Rick said…

    Dear Ms Donato,

    I’ve loved bel canto since I first heard “Mira, o Norma”
    in the 70s. But I’ve never been as moved dramatically
    as I was in watching the last 20 minutes with you as Stuarda
    in the Met HD telecast. I saw the encore
    performance just last night, and it’s haunted me
    most if the day.

    Your acting, phrasing, coloring were extraordinary.

    Thank you for your performance and your demonstration
    of the power of these works.



  18. Benito said…

    Dear Joyce:
    When I began to listen opera I tried to listen all the great opera performance of the most important titles of genre.
    I have the “pirate” recording version of Maria Stuarda with Monserrat Caballé and Shirley Verret, like Maria and Elisabeth. In the same recording, include some fragments of the same opera with Leila Gencer and Shirley Verret in the same characters.
    Inside the box include too, a little book with an article in which it says that the “Confrontation scene” between Maria and Elisabetta with this two singers it could had generated so much energy for to illuminate a great city. And that’s right. When you listen this recording you can imagine like a electrical storm between this two women.
    I have had the opportunity to see and to hear you like Maria, and I would like to say that you have overwhelmed me with the intensive dramatic interpretation of Maria’s character. You have successfully transmitted the character’s anguish before her own death, victim of the tyranny of jealousy, without losing her dignity.
    The last scene was tremendously exciting.
    It must have been hard work to develop this, please don’t change it. One of the less operas that it has been played at the world opera’ houses needed someone like you , who it has ben able to get this: to make a credible and realistic portrait of so intensely dramatic character.
    Thanks a lot!

    I would like to tell you an anecdote. Some years ago, I were invited (with my mother too) to see Mozart’s “Idomeneo, Re di Creta” at Teatro Real in Madrid . That was the first time I went to an opera at the Teatro Real., and the fisrt time that I hear this Mozart’s opera. I was excited.
    During the interval between the First and Second Act, my mother asked me:“There is a boy who is singing very well, I like so much, he has a nice voice”… and I answered her : “No, mum, she is a woman, not a man”.
    The character was Idamante and the singer was Joyce Di Donato. I began to follow your carrer from that moment. Thanks again.

  19. Fritz said…

    Joyce–We saw Maria Stuarta via the Met HD transmission a few weeks ago. We are not over it yet. I mean to say, you have set the bar so high…others will do it and do it well, but for a few hours on a cold Saturday morning in the wilds of Washington State my wife and I were completely in that moment on stage. Some of the opera might be fiction, but in the end when you chop someone’s head off—that’s different–called, takin’ things to a whole new level!!!Thank you.

  20. Joyce said…

    Joyce DiDonato – today I sat in a movie theatre thousands of miles from The Met and saw your magnificent performance as Maria Stuarda. Not only can you sing but you can act too! Very moving. Thank you.

  21. Elisabeth said…

    Just home from seeing your truly stunning performance as Maria Stuarda in the Met Live series in Wellington, New Zealand. Congratulations!

  22. Matt Groom said…

    What an empathic and insightful account of the legendary, roman catholic Scottish queen. So pleased that you are to be singing this role at Covent Garden; I’m there to be sure and can’t wait. Was recently lucky enough to hear your La Donna Del Lago at the House, and without the slightest whiff of exaggerated comment, it was the most amazing bel canto singing I have ever seen live.
    Yours in awe!!!

  23. Joyce, you are one of a kind and, having read your personal account of the effect of Maria Stuarda has had and is still having on you I am glad I did not swoop down and rescue you as I had planned.

    Have a happy and blessed Christmas


  24. Chrissie Bates said…

    Just watched the Maria Stuarda dvd and I felt I had to add my voice to other comments here. It is a wonderful production – not least because of a brilliant interpretation by you, Joyce (sorry for addressing you as if you are my new best friend …..) of the title role. There are many superb highlights throughout the piece. The ageing of Mary is so believable, and sympathetic, and in the incredibly moving final part of the opera this woman really looks like she’s about to mount the scaffold – quite unlike any Mary Queen of Scots of stage or screen that I have ever seen. An incredible achievement, requiring great skill – not to mention stamina. And brilliant that Donizetti’s music has been exposed in this way.

    I have been lucky enough to get tickets to see the opera at Covent Garden in July – way up in the Amphitheatre – but hey, I’ll take a telescope! The ROH will be hard pushed to improve upon the beautifully designed and intelligent David McVicar production, but I am looking forward to it immensely.

    Many congratulations on a wonderful tour de force – ace, spiffing, top hole – London awaits!

  25. Heidi-Rose Calandra said…

    Just watched Maria Stuarda dvd – Incredible! Awesome! I felt stunned and exhausted by the end just watching – how do you play an emotional part like that and stay in one piece?

    I was hoping to get tickets to see it at ROH but couldn’t afford it in the end – [I considered selling my house, and camping out in Covent Garden, – but then remembered I don’t own a house!! lol ;)]

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