San Francisco Classical Voice: Joyce DiDonato Mingles Genres in Songplay

San Francisco Classical Voice

Internationally acclaimed and multiple Grammy Award-winning mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato is a master when it comes to mixing it up musically. Known for her flawless conveyance of bel canto music, technical agility, and her ability to thoroughly inhabit her roles on opera stages worldwide, she has never limited herself to one particular style. In fact, her latest recording, Songplay, released on Feb. 1, mixes jazz, Latin, and tango rhythms into arrangements of Italian Baroque arias, jazz standards, and picks from the Great American Songbook. She will be performing selections from this genre-bending recording on Wednesday, Feb. 20 when Cal Performances presents Songplay at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley, accompanied by a stellar group of musicians, including Craig Terry on piano, Chuck Israels on double bass, Jimmy Madison on drums, Lautaro Greco on bandoneon, and Charlie Porter on trumpet.

Anything but a diva, DiDonato, who just celebrated her 50th birthday, was born and raised in Kansas, and has never abandoned her hardworking, Midwestern values. She discovered her love for singing and performing at an early age, and decided to pursue teaching. In her junior year at college she decided to study voice to aid her as a music teacher, and it was then that she learned to hear opera, which had never interested her before, in an entirely new way.

Intoxicated by the music, DiDonato decided to switch gears and pursue a career as a professional opera singer, a whirlwind path that has left both her — and the world — breathless. Full of joie de vivre and a passion for music and life, DiDonato answered some questions recently via email while traveling outside the country about what drives her.

Songplay is such an incredibly interesting mix — jazz, classical, tango. What inspired you to make a record with this particular mix of genres?

The music! I’ve always had a huge musical appetite, and much of my childhood was made up of me standing in front of the mirror in my bedroom singing along at the top of my lungs to jazz and pop tunes of the day. I suppose the result is this record, decades later! But there is also a wonderful synergy between the baroque and jazz worlds which has become a very organic fusion for this album, so aside from the childhood dreams, this is a musical dream for me as a musician.

What was your process for picking the songs? Were you involved in creating the arrangements?

Craig Terry, the incredible pianist and arranger of this album, approached me with the idea nearly five years ago, and we knew we were onto something incredibly special. But we also knew it was imperative that we work in a very organic way, never imposing any desired style onto an existing piece. So we met and sat for hours and hours in various cities, hand-picking the Italian selections we wanted to play with, and exploring various styles and approaches. Each time, we knew when something clicked into place that it was right — and we didn’t stop until it clicked. The American songs came very easily, so it was more a matter of editing them down and including only the pieces that spoke deeply to us.

Do you have to use a different vocal technique to sing in styles other than opera?

I don’t actually think about it. On the opera stage, I’ve always aimed to be able to employ a wide variety of color to any given moment, so that the emotional story at hand could be communicated. That’s all I’m doing here, so while I can change my color and texture hopefully at will, as long as it is on the breath and serving the text, I just feel that I’m singing as I always do.

Jazz and classical are opposites in many ways. What do you think are the biggest differences and similarities? 

Actually, in the baroque world, which has been a huge focus in my career, it is precisely that idea of improvisation that is demanded. These old Italian art songs we are presenting are all composed with the same figured bass that jazz musicians use — it was expected that the continuo would fill in all the harmonies. This is precisely why we feel these two worlds fuse so beautifully! I’ve also been a huge proponent over my career — through the ornaments of Rossini and Handel and Bellini — that each singer needs to bring their own particular strengths to any given piece, which is, again, the same expectation in jazz. It’s astonishing how much these two genres have in common!

What inspires you to branch out into musical styles other than opera?

I’ve always had a huge musical appetite, so I’m just digging in and savoring the journey!

You have collaborated a lot with Jake Heggie. What do you like about working with him?

I love Jake’s incredible humanity first and foremost, but as a composer I TREASURE that he is a fearless storyteller, and his generosity as a human being translates into his compositions — he wants to illuminate the audience and touch their hearts. It’s why performances of his music bring both laughter and tears in equal measure.

You started out to be a teacher and ended up an opera star. Are you glad you chose the path that you did? 

HA! Oh my — if I weren’t happy with it, I would have absolutely changed years and years ago! Of COURSE I’m happy I have chosen this path. It has been the greatest teacher I’ve ever had. It has brought me to the farthest corners of the globe, has introduced me to cultures and people and hearts that have forever changed me, it has taught me to be patient and present in every moment I can, and it has pushed me beyond any limits I may have self-imposed on myself. The list is endless.

You lead a whirlwind life of traveling and performing. How do you stay grounded?

I dig into the exact present moment I am living — relentlessly. Fatigue is the biggest challenge, but thankfully music is an incredible energizer!

You are known for really inhabiting your roles. How do you do that so effectively?

I think it’s self-defense. I simply cannot justify standing on stage, at such huge expense to so many people, and dare to open my mouth and bring to life some of the greatest masterpieces mankind has ever produced, and do it halfway. There must be a reason that characters on the operatic stage are required to sing their inner emotions to such an exaggerated extent, and this cannot come to full fruition unless the performer is 100 percent invested in that moment with all that they have access to within.

What do you like about being a performer? 

I have always felt at home on stage. The fact that I’m given permission to plumb the depths of the human condition for my day job is something that I find utterly astonishing to me. I take very seriously the responsibility I have to give people an experience they cannot encounter, generally, in their everyday life. And that synergy that is created, the trust we nurture between performer and audience, is something that is an incredible, humbling privilege.

What are you passionate about besides music?

Life. Color. Art. Nature. Breathing. Joy. Laughter. Love. Passion. Wonder. Unfiltered olive oil.

What are you most grateful for in your life?

All of it. Every damn thing!

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“Alex, I’ll take welcoming hotel hallways for $1,000, please.” #AgrippinasKarma #Poppeawarnedme #whereitalyandaustriamergeforbetterorforworse #redrum #heresjoycee #seriously #RIGHTOUTSIDEMYDOOR #touringlife

TONIGHT we bring our #Agrippina to the @liceu_opera_barcelona for 3.75 hours of scheming da capos!! No puc esperar!!!! #elpoderabsolutcorrompeabsolutament #totiaixíaquestsrecitatius #diversíoperversa Photo: Javier Del Real @ilpdo

Close up of the print on my Agrippina Dress! I found the silk in #Shanghai and knew it was for this aspiring, conquering Handelian Roman!!! #dragonsandbuildingsandsilkohmy #abdolutepowercorruptsABSOLUTELY #norestforthewicked #rulersareyoutakingnote??

Last night I had the great, wicked joy of debuting the role of Agrippina with my beloved Il "Pomo d'Oro" orchestra and a wonderful cast. It’s going to be great fun getting to know her more and more ... not a moral fiber to be found in her!!!! Reminds me of a few people presently in power, no?? #absolutepowercorruptsABSOLUTELY #motheroftheyear #wheresmythrone #whatdoesagirlhavetodotogetacrown #thoserecitsthough 📸: @catecool

When I first flirted with the idea of taking on #Agrippina, it was asked of me, “But you do know she’s quite wicked, right?” Oh yes. I know. A new tour begins NOW with an extraordinary cast and my beloved partners Il Pomo d’oro with Maxim Emelyanychev at the helm. Between our limited 5-city tour, we are RECORDING!! • Handel: AGRIPPINA Luxembourg City • Madrid • Barcelona • Paris • London Il "Pomo d'Oro" orchestra @ilpdo @maxim_emelyanychev, harpsichord/director • Joyce DiDonato - Agrippina @LucaPisaroni - Claudio @elsabenoitsoprano - Poppea @xaviersabata - Ottone / Giunone Franco Fagioli- Nerone @andrewmastroni - Pallante @carlo.vistoli - Narciso Biagio Pizzuti - Lesbo • #BacktoHandel #Wicked #absolutepowercorruptsabsolutely #ihavealwaysbraggedabouthowmuchiloverecitative #timetoputmymoneywheremymouthis #HIGHDRAMA #handel @philharmonie_lux @teatro_real @liceu_opera_barcelona @theatre_champs_elysees @barbicancentre @askonasholt STYLING: @vitatzykun PHOTO: @chrissingerme

“I left my heart ... in Windy Chi-Town...” Aside from the glorious music making with the astonishing, treasured @chicagosymphony, it was this day at the Warrenville Juvenile Detention Center that stole my heart. I applaud the CSO and Maestro Muti for their commitment to bring their music to these beautiful kids, and I was deeply honored to sing for them. Seeing tears come to their eyes as they experienced Mozart first hand was simply life-affirming. As the beautiful girl in the yellow shirt told me afterwards as tears spilled from her eyes, “I don’t know what happened to me, but it feels like all of the anguish I’ve ever felt in my life came pouring out of that music.” Let’s not EVER underestimate the need for human connection in these kids’ lives. In a broken system and an often broken world, music and the arts are a bonafide, VITAL part of healing. How can you help? Photos: @toddrphoto

Can you #HANDEL the #glamour? You know you can’t!!! 🤓 Hotel room studying, people. It’s real, it’s thrilling, and it’s my most favorite thing everrrrrrrrrrrrr. [srcsm] #sheisNOTplayingaround #anythingforthethrone #andstillshepersisted #couldthereBEmorerecitative? #no #notherecouldnot #justtakethethronealready #GOTagrippinastyle #absolutepowerblahblah #historySUREDOESrepeat #andstill ... #thisroleisEPIC

Getting my Cléopâtre on! What a JOY to be back on stage with the singular @chicagosymphony making extraordinary music together. I’m so glad to be here.

I am thrilled to remain in the gorgeous world of Berlioz a while longer and look forward to singing his poignant cantata La Mort de Cléopâtre with the brilliant Chicago Symphony Orchestra​ and Maestro Riccardo Muti​ this week! May 2, 4 & 7: Orchestra Hall May 3: Wheaton College​ @chicagosymphony @riccardomutimusic Photo: Chris Sweda / Chicago Tribune

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There will always be more freedom to acquire and more truth to uncover.

~ Joyce DiDonato